Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have declined to remove the president's statements about unproven coronavirus treatments.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook's chief executive, said in March that promoting bleach as a cure for the coronavirus was "misinformation that has imminent risk of danger" and that such messages would immediately be removed from the social network.
President Donald Trump has now put Zuckerberg's comments to the test. At a White House briefing in April, Trump suggested disinfectants and ultraviolet light were possible treatments for the virus. His remarks immediately found their way onto Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites, and people rushed to defend the president's statements as well as mock them.
But Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have declined to remove Trump's statements posted online in video clips and transcriptions of the briefing, saying he did not specifically direct people to pursue the unproven treatments. That has led to a mushrooming of other posts, videos and comments about false virus cures with UV lights and disinfectants that the companies have largely left up.
• Coronavirus Covid 19: Zero new cases today - Ashley Bloomfield
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Rules around level 2 to be decided today
• Covid 19 coronavirus: What you need to know about Saturday's big developments
• Covid 19 coronavirus: Social cohesion under threat post Covid-19
A New York Times analysis found 780 Facebook groups, 290 Facebook pages, nine Instagram accounts and thousands of tweets pushing UV light therapies that were posted after Trump's comments and that remained on the sites as of Thursday. More than 5,000 other posts, videos and comments promoting disinfectants as a virus cure were also on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube this week. Only a few of the posts have been taken down.
The social media companies have always tread delicately when it comes to Trump. Yet their inaction on posts echoing his remarks on UV lights and disinfectants stands out because the companies have said for weeks that they would not permit false information about the coronavirus to proliferate.
Apart from Zuckerberg saying Facebook would take a stand, Twitter announced in March that it would delete virus tweets "that could potentially cause harm." YouTube has repeatedly said it removes videos that show medically unsubstantiated coronavirus treatments. And all of the companies have said they would promote virus information from authoritative health sources like the World Health Organization.
On Wednesday, Zuckerberg reiterated that Facebook would not tolerate virus falsehoods. In an investor call, he cited the example of "inhaling water" to cure the coronavirus as dangerous misinformation that the social network would remove.
Facebook 'just trying to keep the lights on' as traffic soars in pandemic
Bill Gates, at odds with Trump on virus, becomes a right-wing target
Renee DiResta, a technical research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, said most of the tech companies developed health misinformation policies "with the expectation that there would be a competent government and reputable health authority to point to." Given that false information is coming from the White House, the companies have been thrown for a loop, she said.
The difficulties for Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have been compounded because they would risk ire from the right if they deleted Trump's comments and appeared to censor him. The president has previously accused Facebook, Google and Twitter of suppressing conservative voices on their platforms.
"The question of whether to take down" the president's comments on social media "is an unwinnable argument," said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, an organization that fights online disinformation.
Facebook, which owns Instagram and WhatsApp, said it continues "to remove definitive claims about false cures for Covid-19, including ones related to disinfectant and ultraviolet light." YouTube said Trump's comments did not violate its misinformation policy. Twitter said satire and discussions of Trump's remarks that do not include a call to action, as well as Trump's comments themselves, did not violate its policies.
Some lawmakers have said the companies need to do more. On Thursday, members of Parliament in Britain criticized representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter for not responding more aggressively to posts by world leaders and celebrities who shared false or scientifically dubious information. They pointed to posts promoting Trump's comments about disinfectant and the conspiracy theory shared by the actor Woody Harrelson that coronavirus was caused by 5G wireless technology.
The social media companies came under scrutiny last Thursday after Trump, at his daily White House briefing on the virus, floated the idea that an "injection inside" the human body with a disinfectant could help combat the illness. He then turned to Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator, and asked if she had heard of using "the heat and the light" to treat the coronavirus.
"Not as a treatment," Birx said, before Trump cut her off.
Medical experts and scientists immediately pounced on the comments as medically unsafe and urged people not to inject themselves with disinfectants or bleach.
On Friday, after right-wing news outlets such as Breitbart published articles saying Trump's words were being taken out of context, the president said he had made his comments about UV lights and disinfectant injections sarcastically.
By then, his remarks had already spread widely. On Friday, mentions of a disinfectant cure on social media and television broadcasts spiked to 1.2 million, up from roughly 400,000 on Thursday, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company.
Trump's supporters also went to work online. Many found videos promoting UV light as a cure and shared them as evidence of support for the president's remarks. They often cited Aytu BioScience, a pharmaceutical company that posted a video Friday depicting an experimental UV technology designed to be inserted via a catheter into a patient to kill the coronavirus. That video has been mentioned across the internet and TV more than 17.1 million times since last Thursday, according to Zignal Labs.
YouTube removed the video after The Times contacted the company about it; a spokeswoman said the video promoted an unsubstantiated medical treatment. Aytu BioScience did not respond to requests for comment.
Other supporters of Trump also posted their defense of the president's comments on injecting disinfectant. Angela Stanton-King, a former reality TV star who was pardoned by Trump this year for her role in a car-theft ring, tweeted Friday, "I'm convinced Trump plays the media for the fools they are." She added a video of a patient appearing to receive UV light therapy "to kill viruses and bacteria."
Her post was retweeted nearly 6,000 times.
"My tweet stands for itself," Stanton-King, a Republican who is running for Congress against Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., said in an emailed statement. "It seems to me that President Trump is trying to lead the country through these unprecedented times, while everything he says and does is distorted by the mainstream media looking for ratings."
This week, posts about alternative UV therapies that referred to Trump spread widely on Facebook. More than 700 posts about the unproven treatments — published after the Thursday briefing — collected more than 50,000 comments and likes, according to the Times analysis.
In some Facebook groups that have hundreds of thousands of followers, people posted photographs of chemical agents that they said they planned to consume. Trump, they wrote, had sent them "a message" about a possible cure. In hundreds of comments, people also offered advice on how to procure and ingest the disinfectants.
On YouTube, the top 10 search results for Trump's comments returned videos from traditional news sources like CNN and Politico. But YouTube videos defending the president's suggestion of UV lights and disinfectants were reposted and shared in thousands of right-wing Facebook communities, private chats and online forums, according to the Times analysis.
On Twitter, The Times found more than 45,000 tweets discussing bleach and UV light cures for the coronavirus that stemmed from the president's comments last Thursday. Many of the posts said Trump was right about his suggested treatments.
"Chlorine Dioxide is a 'bleaching disinfectant' that's often added to municipal water systems to make water SAFE to drink," said one tweet. "And here the fake news media and the 'medical experts' they work with are telling you that you may die from drinking something like it."
David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University, saw his own studies on using UV lighting in public spaces to kill the coronavirus cited widely on Twitter. He said his research was never meant to be explored as a cure for the virus in the human body.
When told that his research was shared nearly 300 times on Twitter, mostly by Trump's supporters, and had reached 1.3 million people, Brenner was astounded.
"I never imagined that I was going to become a hero of the right wing," he said.
Written by: Sheera Frenkel and Davey Alba
Photographs by: Al Drago
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES