Since 2016, social media companies have been exposed to an endless barrage of bad press and public criticism for failing to foresee how their platforms could be used for dark purposes at the population level – for example, to undermine democracies around the world or sowing social division and even fueling genocide.
While COVID-19 plunges the world into chaos and social isolation, the same companies could take a break from targeted criticism, especially if the industry uses their extraordinary resources to help COVID-19 help when the world is new to technology seeks to cut red tape and advance scientific advances in normal times while leaving government bureaucracies behind. But the same old problems still raise their ugly heads, even if fewer of us are careful.
On YouTube, a new report from The Guardian and the watchdog group Tech Transparency Project found that a number of videos promoting fake coronavirus remedies are bringing the company advertising dollars. Videos promoting unscientific methods such as "home remedies, meditative music, and potentially unsafe amounts of over-the-counter supplements such as vitamin C" were advertised by ignorant advertisers, including Liberty Mutual, Quibi, Trump's 2020 re-election campaign and Facebook. In the case of Facebook, an advertising banner for the company ran on a video proposing music that could promote "cognitive positivity through the use of subtle but powerful theta waves" and could ward off the virus.
In the early days of the pandemic, YouTube banned the promotion of videos related to the corona virus. In mid-March, when the actual scope of the event became clear, the company went back on this policy and allowed some channels to run ads. On Thursday, the company expanded this policy to allow ads for videos that comply with corporate policies. One of the most important principles in these guidelines prohibits the promotion of incorrect medical information, including the "promotion of dangerous remedies or remedies". Most of the videos in the new report were removed after being tagged by a journalist.
This example and the many others who like it ask how important technology platforms can be judged in these very strange times. Social media companies were unusually transparent about the changes that the pandemic is causing in their own workflows. When calling in March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg admitted that with their army of 15,000 contract moderators sent home on paid vacation, users can expect more "false alarms" if the company relies more on artificial intelligence to do so filter what is important to the platform and what is not. Browsing the most unsavory content on a platform – child pornography, extreme violence, hate speech, and the like – is not particularly sustainable given the potential psychological and legal implications.
Similarly, YouTube warned that it would "temporarily use more technology" to provide human auditors and warned that the automated processes would likely mean more video removals, "including some videos that may not violate policies." Twitter noted the same new machine learning addiction "to take a wide range of measures regarding potentially abusive and manipulative content," although the company will offer an appeals process that involves a human examiner. Companies warned less of what could be falling through the cracks in the meantime.
What will become of moderation when things normalize again or rather agree on a new normal? Will artificial intelligence have mastered the task and made the need for human experts once and for all redundant? (Unlikely.) Will social media companies reevaluate the value of human effort and bring more of these jobs into the home, where they can do their dreary work with more of the sunny perks their full-time colleagues are getting? Like most things investigated by the nightmarish haze of the pandemic, the results are blurry at best.
If the approach to making platforms accountable has already been piecemeal, an uneven mix of investigative reports, anecdotal tweets, and official corporate autopsies, the truth will now be even more difficult to find, even if the coronavirus pandemic offers countless new deadly opportunities for Price cutters and countless bad actors to create chaos in chaos.
We have already seen fatal consequences in Iran, where hundreds died after drinking industrial alcohol – an idea they received "in forwarded and forwarded news" to reinforce a tabloid story that suggested the deed was ahead could protect the virus. Most of the consequences will likely go unnoticed beyond the life that affects them and will not be reported due to narrower newsroom resources and possibly even narrower attention spans.
Much has been written about the corona virus and the fog of war, most of which rightly focused on scientific research that is progressing as the virus threatens the globe and the devastating local and clinical reality that hospitals and health care facilities have seen from COVID-19 -Patients overwhelmed, life-saving supplies are dwindling. But the crisis of viral misinformation – and the deliberately sown disinformation – is its own nebula that is now mingling with an unprecedented global crisis that has turned business upside down and relentlessly dominated the news cycle. This is because the world's leading power is entering a completely different cycle of presidential elections – the first in four years when an unexpected election result, combined with deep US centrism in technology circles, revealed shameful forces just below the surface of the social organizations we organized Networks in the game hadn't thought about it that much.
It will currently be difficult for outsiders to determine where new systems that have been implemented during the pandemic have failed and what bad results would have occurred anyway. To clarify these causes, we have to take the word of a company for it, a risky kind of gullibility that has already given mixed results in normal times. Even if we rely more than ever to make and maintain connections, the virtual portals we immerse ourselves in every day remain black boxes, as unfathomable as ever. And as with so many aspects of life in these norm-destroying times, the only thing you can expect is change.