"Pull that up, Jamie": can we trust Big Tech to manage misinformation?

Are attempts to combat misinformation by Big Tech companies misinformed in their approach?

Josh Smith
25th February 2022
Joe Rogan on his popular podcast The Joe Rogan Experience. Image: PowerfulJRE, YouTube
The response to the global pandemic online has left many wondering whether enough is being done to battle misinformation. This has led platforms to begin using machine learning to include disclaimers before harmful misinformation. However, this raises questions of whether non-news platforms can really be expected to uphold journalistic standards, and whether profit-driven companies can be left to manage issues which go against their profits without any legal requirements to do so.

The Joe Rogan Experience, attached to Spotify exclusively through a $100 million contract, has recently been under flak for its host’ and guest’s comments, opposing vaccine and mask mandates and supporting natural immunity and alternate medicines. This has led to many artists removing their content from the platform until the podcast is removed. Spotify have reacted by introducing disclaimers before content which flags up as COVID-19 misinformation, but are yet to remove or censor said posts, despite having rules against deceptive and harmful content. So, should we expect more action to be taken against misinformation by these platforms?

Joe Rogan's response to criticism of his spreading misinformation - he believes he should "try harder to get people with differing opinions"

Arguably, no. Rules against content which could promote harm are typically enforced regardless of the users’ size, as Twitter’s permanent suspension of @realDonaldTrump in 2021 would suggest. If the matter is as simple as that case, where a direct call to violence is visible, one would expect all platforms to act similarly. However, COVID-19 misinformation is a much more complex issue.

In 2020, many religious groups online encouraged followers to act in a way which would oppose scientific advice. Greece’s Orthodox Church encouraged followers to continue the practice of Holy Communion, which could cause infection through eating food touched by others, as “this cannot be the cause of the spread of illness” due to its holiness. This statement would arguably fall within misinformation, if one disagreed with the teachings, yet censoring the statement as ‘misinformation’ would also possibly fall under religious discrimination.

Little is at stake in regard to Moon-hoax believers, but one topic is undeniably important to combat: Holocaust denial

Therefore, even ignoring the financial motivations, it is understandable to see platforms taking as weak a stance towards COVID-19 misinformation as possible. However, what about when the topic is not one based on faith and scientific understanding, but on history? Platforms are always under pressure to avoid becoming breeding grounds of harmful conspiracy theories. Little is on stake in regard to YouTuber fan theories and Moon-hoax believers, yet one topic is undeniably important to combat — Holocaust denial.

TikTok have begun a campaign against Holocaust misinformation on their platform. When content relevant to the Holocaust is discussed, users are given a message encouraging them to visit www.aboutholocaust.org. With 17% of the platform’s Holocaust-related content “denying or distorting the event” according to UNESCO, this is an important move. However, this approach also feels more useful for TikTok’s appearance than combatting misinformation. If one considers that Holocaust denial often links to an antisemitic belief of Judaism holding excessive deceptive power over the world, it is unlikely that a conspirator would have their mind changed by a WJC (World Jewish Congress) source. Instead, the results could even be harmful, increasing the antisemitic delusion.

So, what should platforms do? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer which will please anyone, but a crucial decision will inevitably need to be made between the freedom against the harms of misinformation and the freedom to express oneself freely online. One can only hope the decision is made morally and not financially.

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