You don't have to go far to find someone online to downplay the severity of a global pandemic, bring entire economies to a standstill, and bring everyday life to a standstill. With this in mind, Twitter will take additional steps to remove tweets that are at risk of infecting people with the novel corona virus, as it is spreading rapidly through communities around the world.
Wednesday's Twitter updated its security policy to ban tweets that "could put people at higher risk of COVID-19 transmission". The new directive bans tweets that refuse to provide professional guidance on the virus, and promotes “counterfeit or ineffective treatments, prevention, and diagnostic techniques”, as well as tweets that mislead users by pretending to be from health authorities or experts.
Content that increases the likelihood of someone getting infected or spreading the virus, including:
– Refusal to provide technical instructions
– Encourage the use of counterfeit or ineffective treatments, prevention, and diagnostic techniques
– Misleading content that is said to come from experts or government agencies
– Twitter Safety (@TwitterSafety) March 18, 2020
Given the new guidelines outlined by Twitter, the platform will have its work cut out for it. According to the rule set, a tweet that claims "social distancing is not effective" would be removed. Twitter also wants to delete if followers are instructed to do ineffective or dangerous things like drinking bleach, even if the tweet is "kidding" because this content can be harmful if taken out of context.
Twitter also wants to delete tweets that call for action and encourage other users to act contrary to the recommendations of the health authorities. The example tweet reads: "Coronavirus is a scam and not real – go out and patronize your local bar!" Some political figures have been criticized for similar statements in the past few days, including Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), who encouraged Fox Business viewers to "just go out … go to your local pub".
The rules also prohibit tweets in which people play an armchair doctor and say: "If you have a wet cough, it is not a coronavirus – but a dry cough is." Neither should users make coronavirus claims that groups of people are selected based on their race or nationality, for example, to prevent followers from eating in Chinese restaurants. Other racial claims, such as John McAfee's tweet, that "coronavirus cannot attack black people" are also not flying.
The new rules for misinformation related to Twitter's corona viruses are as thorough as they are difficult to enforce. Many, many tweets seem to fall under the in-depth policy, which is supposed to prevent misinformation from spreading on the social network.
To meet the unique challenge of the pandemic, Twitter has set up a content severity triage system to identify and remove the most potentially harmful tweets, with less emphasis on users labeling the tweets themselves . The company had previously announced that it would rely more on automation and machine learning to respond to content that violated platform rules. Twitter admits that this can lead to errors in some cases.
To do justice to the seriousness of the situation, Twitter's guidelines set out an aggressive and fluid approach that we don't always see on social networks. We'll follow how the platform experiment works in the coming days and whether Twitter can help stem the flow of potentially fatal misinformation when the world wakes up to the global threat of COVID-19.