Jun 2, 2021 - Technology

Resurgence of "conspiracy theories" humbles misinformation police

Illustration of the Masonic eye in a cursor.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Social media companies are trying to walk the line between banning false information and overreacting to merely unverified information.

Driving the news: In its effort to keep misinformation off of its platform, Facebook for months banned posts promoting the "lab leak" theory of COVID-19's origins — only to reverse itself now that the theory is increasingly being considered plausible.

The big picture: Rather than emphasize consistency, platforms have zigged and zagged their policies as the news cycle evolves.

  • Over the last year, Facebook has bounced between policing coronavirus misinformation, adding labels to those posts, deciding that vaccine misinformation wasn't subject to the same standards as COVID posts — and then reversing that policy in February.
  • The minefield around COVID origins goes back a ways: last year, Twitter banned financial blog Zero Hedge's account after it posted an article linking a Chinese doctor at the Wuhan Institute of Virology to the virus outbreak. It then reinstated the account months later after determining that the suspension was an error.

Between the lines: Many of the most controversial, polarizing topics that animate internet discourse exist within factual gray areas that allow wide latitude between unknowns and misinformation.

  • Social media platforms have been under intense pressure to address the misinformation, but have trouble deciphering between shutting down dangerous posts and being too strict when the facts aren't resolved.

In recent weeks, mainstream attitudes about UFOs and Jeffrey Epstein's death have been challenged, showing at least that outright dismissal of alternative scenarios might be too heavy-handed.

The bottom line: This problem illustrates why the social media platforms fought so hard to not have to be the speech police, though that ship has long sailed.

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