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Facebook’s reversal on banning claims that covid-19 is man-made could unleash more anti-Asian sentiment

Experts said companies needed to be even more vigilant as the lab theory is given more credence

Facebook said in a statement that the company would continue to shift its policies based on new information. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)
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As the U.S. reopens a debate into the origins of the novel coronavirus, Facebook reversed course Thursday and said that it would no longer remove posts that claim the virus is man-made.

The decision is notable because it shows, once again, how social media giants struggle to strike the right balance between protecting the public from harmful misinformation and enabling robust discussion of controversial ideas.

The action is hardly Facebook’s first policy reversal. Facebook changed course last year on the topic of Holocaust denial, banning content that denies the Holocaust after CEO Mark Zuckerberg vociferously defended people’s right to do so for years.

The claim that the coronavirus is man-made, long dismissed by the scientific community as a harmful conspiracy, has recently been reopened because of new findings. That includes news that three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.

But the reopening of debate presents challenging issues for Facebook because the claim has also been associated with a wave of anti-Asian sentiment.

When Trump gets coronavirus, Chinese Americans pay a price

Joan Donovan, research director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School said it was inevitable that the changing sentiment around the lab theory could unleash more anti-Asian sentiment on social media. Tech companies need to redouble their efforts to protect Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders now that the claim is gaining more credence, she added.

“What we have to look out for in the U.S. is an uptick in content that criticizes China, while dividing the AAPI community,” she said. “Content that dehumanizes Chinese people, accuses Chinese people of being responsible or somehow of knowing about the pandemic, or otherwise suggests that it was a bioweapon will grow. Companies are going to have to look for content where AAPI hate is monetized and make sure that it does not become profitable.”

Facebook said in a statement that the company would continue to shift its policies based on new information.

“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,” spokeswoman Dani Lever said. “We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”

“There is no place for hate on our platform and we will remove anything that breaks our rules,” she added.

Facebook has long-defended an expansive view of free speech, but in recent years has moved further in the direction of policing, hiring tens of thousands of content moderators, publishing lengthy policies, and developing algorithms that restrict the content people can share. As the pandemic began, the company went much further, banning dozens of misleading or false claims on the grounds that they could cause imminent harm.

The company bans claims that masks can give people covid, that covid is safer than the flu, or that the vaccines contain microchips. The company takes its guidance from the World Health Organization and other public health agencies when deciding which claims to ban.

Former president Donald Trump was at the forefront of the narrative associated with the lab leak theory and repeatedly pushing the notion that responsibility for the virus lies with China. In the first presidential debate on Sept. 29, Trump said the pandemic was “China’s fault” and referred to the virus as the “China plague" and “Kung flu." He recently said on Fox News that he had “very little doubt” that the virus came from a lab.

Even when it was being dismissed by the broader scientific community, several right-leaning outlets kept pushing the lab theory. In recent months, more mainstream scientists and the World Health Organization have started to also raise questions and say it cannot be ruled out.

Timeline: How the Wuhan lab-leak theory suddenly became credible

Just in the last week, since the discussion of the virus’s origins has been reopened, the term “Wuhan Lab” spiked across social media, and was frequently used in conjunction with references to Anthony S. Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, according to the misinformation research organization Zignal Labs.

Fauci said this month that he wasn’t totally convinced that the novel coronavirus developed naturally and that he thinks that more investigation into its origins is needed.

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