But now we are in a different phase: The verbiage from the Orange Man in the White House has regularly involved misleading assurances about a lethal pandemic. If heeded, those words have the potential to increase people’s chances of being exposed to a disease that may kill them.
I don’t suggest that the president be censored, which is the explicit line that both Dorsey and Zuckerberg are unwilling to to cross. But instead of hitting us with their usual justification for inaction—“You don’t want us to decide what content is OK!”—they should be asking themselves, “When do we need to inform our users that content is dangerous, no matter who says it?”
Facebook already has a way to flag false content without removing it. The company hires fact-checkers to vet certain posts, and when it circulates stories deemed false, it supplies additional information that leads all but the dimmest or most close-minded users to sniff out the stuff that comes from bovine males.
Twitter has a similar policy that specifically cites what happens if a newsworthy world leader posts a harmful tweet. In such cases, it says, “we may place it behind a notice that provides context about the violation and allows people to click through should they wish to see the content.” But Twitter has not exercised that policy over Trump’s dangerously sanguine pronouncements—not even once.
If ever there was a time to provide context over the false and dangerous statements from the president of the United States, it is now. But don’t take it just from me. On Wednesday, the White House itself gathered representatives from many of the top tech companies. Among the measures suggested by the nation’s chief technology officer, Michael Kratsios, was “to identify best practices to root out Covid-19 misinformation.”
Our top technology officer did not mention any exceptions. We should not make one for the misinformer-in-chief.
In April 2017, I interviewed Jack Dorsey about Donald Trump’s tweeting habits, and just what, exactly, Dorsey intended to do—or not do—about them:
Steven Levy: Now that he has won, there’s a question of whether Twitter should hold a president accountable to the same standards as other users. At Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg reportedly told employees he was not going to censor a nominee’s—and then a president’s—posts. Did you have to make a decision on that?
Jack Dorsey: I think it’s really important that we maintain open channels to our leaders, whether we like what they’re saying or not, because I don’t know of another way to hold them accountable. Any time we have any leader tweet, including Trump, there’s a very interesting and thriving conversation. A mixture of fact checking, disagreement, agreement, and some random things.