Social media COVID-19 crackdowns are censoring the press

By: Ben Deighton I was stunned when a Twitter executive advised us to take down...

By: Ben Deighton

I was stunned when a Twitter executive advised us to take down articles about COVID-19 and another article about access to abortions if we wanted to promote our news on the site.

“I would recommend following the recommendations to remove COVID-19 and abortion content on the landing pages linked from the bio and promoted tweets,” he wrote in an email.

For the avoidance of doubt, “landing pages linked from the bio” means our news homepage.

The abortion article he is referring to was about a research paper published in The Lancet, which showed abortion rates soared when restrictions were put in place. Our COVID-19 coverage is based on peer reviewed research.

For a small publisher like SciDev.Net, social media is one of the main ways we reach our audience. Last year, social media provided 80 per cent of our entire audience reach of 215 million. In the first half of this year, the COVID-19 crackdown meant the proportion from social media fell to less than half.

Twitter allows news publishers to register for an exemption on these restrictions, but only when you have at least 3 million unique visitors per month – an impossible task for specialist news outlets of our size, which only get that number in a year.

When asked for his response to this story, the Twitter executive said: “I’d like to reassure you that our commitment to freedom of expression is deeply embedded into our DNA as a company.”

He added that while the articles weren’t in violation of the company’s “organic” content policy, “we do have certain restrictions in place from our advertising policies which apply solely to our paid advertising solutions”.

As promoted posts are the main way for publishers to reach their audiences, these restrictions amount to a crackdown by social media firms on science news from small publishers, and in particular news about COVID-19.

Our readers are mostly based in developing countries, and this crackdown means people are prevented from learning about COVID-19 at a time of pandemic – when the need for accurate science news is greater than ever.

Healthy societies

Yesterday, the World Health Organization and the UN said the best way to fight misinformation and fake news was to ensure access to evidence-based science. The UN directly called on social media platforms to work with a “free, independent and pluralistic press” to help build healthy societies.

“To fight the pandemic we need trust and solidarity … we must join forces to fight it and to promote science-based public health advice,” said WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

If you read SciDev.Net regularly, you’ll know that we take great pride in being a trustworthy publisher. All the science we cover is peer reviewed or from reputable sources, and every article contains a comment from a researcher who was not involved in the study.

We’re even part of The Trust Project – a coalition of news organisations including The Economist, the BBC and Sky News – which publish all of their policies in machine-readable format so Facebook and Twitter can check them. Our corrections, diversity and anonymity policies are all clearly stated on our website.

It’s laudable that social media sites are cracking down on fake news and misleading content, but they need to ensure that credible news sources can still make their voices heard. This is more vital than ever now, as people need access to reliable information on the COVID-19 pandemic.