The rapid spread of COVID-19 across the planet is shutting doors from Cape Cod to Cape Town, and the internet is aflame with stories of panic, resilience and tragedy. At the same time, it surely comes as little surprise that fake news related to the pandemic is spreading as quickly as the virus itself; from fake toothpaste cures to widespread damnation of over-the-counter painkillers, false tips about COVID-19 are now a dime a dozen.
It was welcome news, then, when Twitter updated its safety policy to prohibit tweets that "could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19." Under the new policy, tweets that deny expert guidance on the virus, or encourage "fake or ineffective treatments, preventions and diagnostic techniques," or pose as messages from health authorities or experts, will all be banned.
In practice, Twitter says that it will "require people to remove Tweets" where a violation takes place, taking into account the history of each user when making enforcement determinations. When there is a violation, the user is notified via email, and given the chance to delete the tweet or make an appeal.
Given these new guidelines, Twitter moderators will no doubt have their work cut out for them. Under the ruleset, tweets that claim "social distancing is not effective" will be subjective to removal, as are tweets that call on followers to do things like drinking bleach — even if the tweet is supposedly "made in jest."
Moreover, the social media platform has also banned tweets that make calls to action that encourage other users to behave in ways that counter the recommendations of health authorities. Tweets like "coronavirus is a fraud — go out and patronize your local bar!" will thus be banned. The move is no doubt related to criticism faced by local politicians in recent days, such as when Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., called on Fox Business viewers to "just go out … go to your local pub."
Also banned are so-called "armchair doctor" tweets, such as those that make claims like "if you have a wet cough, you don't have coronavirus — but a dry cough is." Claims that single out groups of people based on race or nationality are also banned, like those that discourage patrons of Chinese-owned establishments.
To meet this new challenge, Twitter says it has put a "content severity triage system in place" so that the most potentially damaging tweets can be identified and removed, with the platform relying more heavily on automation and machine learning to identify violations en masse. In anticipation of the inevitable mistakes that will arise from this strategy, Twitter has already flagged the risks associated with this move.
Twitter's response to the flood of fake news tied to COVID-19 shows an aggressive response rarely implemented by social networks. While enforcement will no doubt be a challenge — tweets that violate the new policies surely number in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions — Twitter's commitment to tackling the emerging PR crisis on its head is a refreshing move that other firms can surely learn from.
Ronn Torossian is one of America’s foremost Public Relations executives as founder/CEO of 5WPR, a leading independent public relations Agency. The firm was honored as PR Firm of the Year by The American Business Awards, and has been named to the Inc. 500 List. Torossian is author of the best-selling "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations." For more of Ronn Torossian's reports, Go Here Now.
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