Disinformation campaigns can rocket to virality by capitalizing on the very bans that social media companies have enacted to address them, researchers and analysts say.
A key case in point is the "America's Frontline Doctors" video posted on July 27 in which a white-coated group urged treatment of COVID-19 with hydroxychloroquine, which federal agencies have called ineffective and potentially dangerous. The video went viral after President Trump tweeted it, and the platforms removed it that day. But posts about it spiked July 28, the day after Twitter banned it, researchers say. Why? Viral posts about a video that was suddenly unavailable piqued interest even more, they say.
The social media companies' bans are "stopping viral disinformation at a very high rate of engagement — once they have already been established," says Annie Klomhaus, cofounder and chief operating officer of the Austin internet and social media research firm Yonder. By cutting off the content after it's already gained so much steam, the bans end up putting the disinformation in a media spotlight. In the case of the "Frontline Doctors" video and the controversial drug, its proponents can then claim the ban is part of a suppression campaign connected to the government, furthering their conspiracy theory.
In the case of the video, it spread through a formula that's proven incredibly effective for disseminating other messages (or disinformation), too. The groups pass around videos and other disinformation in private groups, which Facebook doesn't closely monitor. Once the content has momentum, users post it to Twitter and seek to engage large influential accounts that share the same ideology. At that point, it is difficult for social media companies to take any action that doesn't exacerbate the issue, in part because of intense coverage by traditional media, which will write up both the fact that disinformation has gone viral and its removal.
"The companies are in a really hard place," Klomhaus says. "They're trying to do the right thing, but addressing something that is already viral is a really hard problem."
Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, who has authored recent widely-cited research on social media disinformation, agrees.
"By the time platforms even notice the existence of such a video, it's often gone viral, and millions of people have seen it, possibly being misled on important issues such as the effectiveness of supposed medical cures," he said. "What's more, the very act of taking down such content can feed into conspiracy theories that the material is being suppressed by malign interests."
Twitter has said its moderators take action swiftly when disinformation is discovered. In the case of the "Frontline Doctors" video, a Twitter spokesperson says, "Tweets with the video were in violation of our COVID-19 misinformation policy. We are taking action in line with our policy."
A Facebook spokesperson said, "It took us several hours to enforce against the video and we're doing a review to understand why this took longer than it should have." The company said it has removed more than 7 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram for violating its policy against sharing COVID-19 misinformation.
Some familiar social media influencers helped to make the "Frontline Doctors" video go viral. The video picked up momentum in private Facebook groups, then made the jump to Twitter, where the right-wing youth group Turning Point USA amplified it. (That group has opposed masks and social distancing despite its cofounder's death from COVID-19.)
The far-right blog Breitbart News picked the story up, as did several programs on a favorite news source of the president, Fox News. The video reached millions when it was tweeted by President Trump and his son, Don Jr. This led to bans by Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Those bans were widely covered by news agencies, and the disinformation campaign reached its peak of 120,000 social media posts about the drug the day after Twitter banned the video. In the week before, there were 18,000 posts about the drug, according to researchers at Yonder.
This may have been exactly what the groups promoting the video wanted. One of the main promoters of the video appears to confirm that view.
A doctor thrust into the spotlight by the video, Stella Immanuel, posted on Twitter that her religious ministry – which says some health issues are caused by people having sex dreams about "demons" – benefited from the TV coverage brought about by the social media ban.
"CNN, MSNBC etc are doing free commercials on our deliverance ministry," she said in a tweet on July 28, the day after Twitter banned the video.
—Stella Immanuel MD (@stella_immanuel) July 29, 2020
Immanuel did not respond to several requests for comment. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. When asked about his sharing of the video last week, President Trump said, "[Immanuel] said that she's had tremendous success with hundreds of different patients, and I thought her voice was an important voice, but I know nothing about her."
The group is backed by Tea Party Patriots, a conservative group that has supported protests against lockdown measures. The New York Times reported that the group posted the video to its YouTube channel on July 27 before it went viral.
Klomhaus of Yonder notes that a similar hydroxychloroquine disinformation campaign followed this path in April, and more disinformation campaigns are likely to exploit this process, especially as the pursuit of a coronavirus cure continues, along with the upcoming election.
"As a vaccine comes closer to coming out, this narrative will probably continue," Klomhaus said. "If it follows the previous pattern of recurring in a few months, that would put this kind of viral politicalization of the virus squarely right in front of the election."
For example, there are many many conspiracy theories about Microsoft founder Bill Gates and COVID-19 that have no basis in fact that are spreading in similar ways on social media, Klomhaus says.
Barrett of NYU says social media platforms must address the holes in their techniques for addressing disinformation, because there's no way the problem is going away in the leadup to November's election.
"Unfortunately, the platforms have no choice but to improve their technical and human content moderation methods and press ahead with removing content that is dangerous to users," he said. "The platforms cannot just throw up their hands and say the problem has no solution."