The Perfect Enemy | Analysis | New report on covid-19 origin puts social media in GOP’s crosshairs - The Washington Post
February 19, 2024

Analysis | New report on covid-19 origin puts social media in GOP’s crosshairs – The Washington Post

Analysis | New report on covid-19 origin puts social media in GOP’s crosshairs  The Washington PostView Full Coverage on Google News

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Below: Enforcers stand down on Meta’s virtual reality deal, and Twitter cuts more workers. First:

New report on covid-19 origin puts social media in GOP’s crosshairs

An Energy Department report attributing the covid-19 pandemic to an accidental laboratory leak is reigniting conservative criticisms of major social networks, which banned users early on from suggesting the coronavirus was man-made before reversing course months later.

The finding is not conclusive: the department made its judgment with “low confidence,” the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, and four other agencies have said natural transmission started it.

But Republicans are now citing the assessment as proof that tech companies like Facebook and Twitter were far too quick to remove posts questioning the origins of the pandemic under their rules against covid-19 misinformation. 

Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.):

The Energy Department joins the FBI in its assessment that the virus likely spread due to an accident at a Chinese laboratory, the Journal reported. 

As the pandemic ramped up in 2020, major social networks rolled out a series of policy changes to curb misleading claims about the virus, including theories about its roots. 

Twitter said early on in May 2020 that it would at least label disputed tweets about the virus, including on its origins. For months after the pandemic began, the theory that the virus originated in a lab was reported as unlikely by medical experts and intelligence officials, some of whom called it a conspiracy theory and blasted claims China created it as a bioweapon.

Facebook made a more explicit policy change in February 2021, announcing that it would remove “debunked claims about the coronavirus and vaccines” including that “COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured.” Like other platforms, Facebook said it made the decision after “consultations with leading health organizations,” like the World Health Organization.

But the company reversed the policy after new reporting at the time reinvigorated the debate around the so-called Wuhan lab-leak theory, as I first reported in May 2021

“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made from our apps,” a Facebook spokesperson told me at the time. 

A YouTube spokesperson said then that such claims were not in violation of its policies because “there has not been consensus” on the virus’s origins.

After Elon Musk’s takeover, Twitter said in November that it is “no longer enforcing the COVID-19 misleading information policy.” In a Twitter thread on Sunday, Musk appeared to express support for the theory that the coronavirus pandemic originated from a lab.

Last year, the company disclosed it had suspended over 11,000 accounts and removed nearly 100,000 pieces of content globally while the policy was in effect between January 2020 and September 2022. It’s not clear how many of those actions may have been tied to covid-19 origin claims.

The new findings are also fueling fresh GOP allegations that tech companies “colluded” with the federal government to stifle viewpoints about the coronavirus pandemic. 

Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), who as Missouri’s attorney general sued to get communications between Biden administration officials and social media companies around medical misinformation, said Sunday he plans to “to make sure this censorship never happens again.” 

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FTC drops case against Meta’s virtual reality deal

The Federal Trade Commission said in a filing it will not pursue an internal antitrust case to block Facebook parent company Meta’s acquisition of virtual reality start-up Within Unlimited, Axios’s Ashley Gold reports

“Previously, the agency had been weighing whether to pursue the case in an administrative court after losing an effort to stop the deal in California district court,” according to the report. Meta closed the acquisition shortly after the court ruling, creating an additional roadblock to another potential challenge. 

“Meta can count this as [an] antitrust win and it marks a major loss for the FTC under chair Lina Khan, who has taken an aggressive stance against tech mergers,” according to the report.

Twitter slashes more jobs to cut costs

Twitter laid off more workers Saturday in the latest wave of job cuts aimed at slashing costs under new owner Elon Musk, Bloomberg News’s Alfred Liu and Kurt Wagner report.

“The layoffs hit employees on teams across the company, including engineering and product,” according to the report. “Some employees learned they were laid off via an email late Saturday … and others tweeted that they learned they were terminated when they could no longer log into the internal system.”

While the exact scope of the layoffs is unclear, the Information previously reported it impacted more than 50 people, and Bloomberg News reported that “sources believe it to be dozens.” The company kicked off an initial series of mass layoffs after Musk took over last year.

TikTok hits back at E.U. over app ban for staff

TikTok accused the European Commission on Friday of failing to consult the company before a decision banning the app from staffers’ phone over security concerns, Reuters’s Foo Yun Chee reports.

“The EU executive and the EU Council, which brings together representatives of the member states to set policy priorities, said on Thursday staff will also be required to remove TikTok from personal mobile devices that have access to corporate services,” according to the report. “TikTok, which has in the past said that data on its service can not be accessed by Beijing, said it had not been told or contacted by either institution ahead of their decisions.”

The move to ban the app follows a successful push by U.S. lawmakers last year to similarly prohibit federal employees from downloading the app on government devices. The company has come under mounting regulatory scrutiny globally over its links to China through its parent company, ByteDance.

Agency scanner

Biden finds breaking up Big Tech is hard to do (Will Oremus, Cat Zakrzewski and Naomi Nix)

Inside the industry

Musk defends ‘Dilbert’ creator, says media is ‘racist against whites’ (Will Oremus)

Instagram users are being served gory videos of killing and torture (Taylor Lorenz)

Chip Makers Turn Cutthroat in Fight for Share of Federal Money (New York Times)

Meta heats up Big Tech’s AI arms race with new language model (Reuters)

Competition watch

Google’s news-blocking test in Canada a ‘terrible mistake’, says PM Trudeau (Reuters)

The right’s new culture-war target: ‘Woke AI’ (Nitasha Tiku and Will Oremus)

Ernie, what is censorship? China’s chatbots face additional challenges. (Meaghan Tobin and Lyric Li)

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