Twitter Introduces New Rules About Comments Seen As Spreading COVID19

Twitter has announced sweeping new rules surrounding comments that could be seen as aiding the spread of COVID19.

Major media broadcast outlets have gradually become 24 hour COVID19 news networks. The overall tone seen by many is that outlets are screaming how we are all going to die and this whole COVID19 is a sort of global apocalypse. Numbers are constantly being thrown out that makes the virus look as scary as humanly possible.

An example of this is the emphasis on what is happening in Italy and Spain which shows a worrying trend of a worsening situation. At the same time, the situation in Wuhan, China is relegated, at best, down to a footnote mainly because the situation has been improving in the province.

A second example would be constantly showing how many people have contracted the virus, but rarely showing the number of people who have recovered from the virus. Additionally, we have yet to see a report that subtracts the number of people who have contracted the virus and the number of known cases where people have recovered, thus showing how many people are actually still suffering from the virus. The problem with that is that the number of people who have contracted the virus is the larger number, therefore, that is the number that will scare the most people. If 500 people have contracted COVID19 in an area and 100 people have recovered, saying that 400 people still have the virus isn’t as scary as 500 people have contracted the virus.

There is an obvious reason for this, of course. News networks know that COVID19 is something many are thinking about these days. Additionally, what can bring eyeballs to screens is the selling of fear. So, the scarier the story, the more likely people are willing to listen. This, in turn, sells advertising which helps bump up overall profits.

This is not to say that COVID19 is something to not be concerned about, but it does show some motivation in why networks might be turning whole newscasts into a single news story program.

Of course, an unintended side effect to this is that with different aspects of the story getting repeated, some people start feeling that they have magically become a COVID19 expert. So, whether their beliefs are right or wrong, some might feel like they need to take to social media to share what they believe about COVID19. As a result, some information that may not be correct can start circulating.

From an administrator perspective, this can represent a problem. Already, major media outlets have an obsession of pointing their accusing fingers at social media and blaming the platforms for various social ills whether or not it is warranted. The last thing moderation teams want to allow happen is having their platform become known as the source for misinformation. So, really, it’s not a surprise how we ended up with recent news about how Twitter is bringing in sweeping new rules banning comments that could be seen as aiding the spread of COVID19. From TechCrunch:

On Wednesday, Twitter updated its safety policy to prohibit tweets that “could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.” The new policy bans tweets denying expert guidance on the virus, encouraging “fake or ineffective treatments, preventions and diagnostic techniques” as well as tweets that mislead users by pretending to be from health authorities or experts.

Update: we’re expanding our safety rules to include content that could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.

Now, we will require people to remove Tweets that include the following:

Content that increases the chance that someone contracts or transmits the virus, including:
– Denial of expert guidance
– Encouragement to use fake or ineffective treatments, preventions, and diagnostic techniques
– Misleading content purporting to be from experts or authorities

In its blog post, Twitter says that it will “require people to remove Tweets” in these cases and we’ve asked the company for more clarification on what that looks like.

Update: Twitter indicated that it will take context like account history into account in making its enforcement determinations, which it says remain unchanged. As far as having users remove offending tweets, according to the company’s existing guidance “When we determine that a Tweet violated the Twitter Rules, we require the violator to remove it before they can Tweet again.” A user is notified of this via email and given a chance to delete the tweet or make an appeal. While that is happening, the tweet is hidden from view.

This reaction, of course, places us on the other end of the free speech spectrum. By this, we mean, how these new rules can raise concern about how free speech can be impacted by such a reaction on Twitter’s part.

One thing to keep in mind is the fact that Twitter is a private company and not the government. If the government was instituting such rules forcefully on these platforms, then you might have a shot at asking valid questions about freedom of expression. However, since this is a private organization, that organization is free to implement whatever rules they like within the bounds of the law. So, if they want to ban comments that denies verified expert opinion, then that is well within their right as a private entity.

Of course, there is concern with the infamous moderation at scale. What is the line between harmless comments of people just goofing off and spreading misinformation? This is where moderation can potentially run into problems. If the rules are enforced too loosely, that has the risk of inviting criticisms of not enforcing the rules. On the flip side, enforce the rules too tightly and you’ll run into the risk of losing large numbers of users.

With respect to the latter scenario, a service like Twitter will actually have some leeway. This is because they have such a large share of the social media market in the first place. If a few hundred thousand users leave, it’s not going to be a big deal because who are they going to run to? There really isn’t much in the way of competition in the microblogging universe in the first place. Alternatively, if they go to other major social media platforms, they can also simply institute similar rules and be no better off. This really is shades of the criticism that big tech companies control such an overwhelming portion of the online market at this point.

So, what this all boils down to is this: how will Twitter enforce these new rules? This will likely be publicly determined if and when the ban hammer starts swinging. The reaction to the public at large could very well be the ultimate judge of how well Twitter is handling all of this.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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