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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.

Go deeper

Bryan Walsh, author of Future
Aug 25, 2021 - Health

The dwindling chances of finding COVID's origin

Chinese police stand outside the Wuhan Institute of Virology as WHO staff visit on Feb. 3. Photo: Photo: Hector Retamal/AFP via Getty Images

A U.S. intelligence review into the origins of COVID-19 has reportedly proved inconclusive, even as WHO experts warn that time is running out to do further studies on the question.

Why it matters: We don't need to know how COVID-19 emerged to finally defeat the pandemic, but clearer answers will help prevent the next big outbreak — whether it comes from nature or human action.

Former Sen. David Perdue to launch bid for Georgia governor

Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

Former Senator David Perdue (R) plans to announce a campaign against Georgia's incumbent Republican Gov. Brian Kemp Monday, according to a source familiar with Perdue's thinking.

Why it matters: Perdue's challenge to his former ally Kemp sets up an unprecedented "scorched earth" battle between Georgia Republicans fueled by former President Donald Trump, in the battleground state. The news was first reported by Politico.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Bipartisan tributes flood in for "giant of the Senate" Bob Dole

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and former Sen. Bob Dole at an event put on by the World Food Program where he was awarded the first “McGovern-Dole Leadership Award” in December 2013. Photo: Douglas Graham/CQ Roll Call

Republican and Democratic politicians, including former Senate colleagues, are sharing condolences and memories commemorating the life of Bob Dole, who passed away at 98 on Sunday morning.

The big picture: Dole, the Republican presidential nominee in 1996, was the longest serving Republican leader in the Senate until 2018, when current Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell surpassed his record.

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