The House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, chaired by Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC), hosted a hearing Wednesday on coronavirus misinformation. On paper, the Subcommittee’s goals are to understand the nation’s preparedness and response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the hearing again highlighted how politicized the issue of the virus is in Congress.
The hearing featured expert testimony from:
- Dr. Kolina Koltai, Postdoctoral Fellow, Center for an Informed Public, University of Washington Information School
- Dr. Jay Kennedy, Assistant Professor, School of Criminal Justice, Assistant Director of Research, Center for Anti-Counterfeiting and Product Protection, Michigan State University
- Dr. Jeffrey Aeschlimann, Associate Professor, School of Pharmacy, Adjunct Associate Professor, School of Medicine, University of Connecticut
- Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, Professor of Medicine and Senior Fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research
- María Teresa Kumar, President and Chief Executive Officer, Voto Latino
In opening statements, the witnesses offered their suggestions for how to address COVID-19 fraud and misinformation:
- “Prominent super spreaders consistently disseminate vaccine misinformation online, despite social media platform content moderation policies,” said Koltai, pointing to evidence from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and disclosures in the documents brought forward by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. She called for platforms to take additional steps to halt the algorithmic amplification of COVID misinformation, particularly from superspreader accounts. She also suggested that platforms need to work together to take coordinated action against such accounts, and that more action needs to be taken to target the financial incentives for COVID-19 misinformation and those that take advantage of them.
- “The evolution of the pandemic has continually created opportunities for fraud,” said Kennedy, rounding up a range of scams and fraudulent schemes, from fake tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) to the spread of misinformation related to the vaccines. He suggested that to address the fraud, there should be more preventative strategies to address crime, more collaboration between the public and private sector to address pandemic fraud, addressing the misinformation that creates the opportunity for fraud, and, in particular, the fraud that targets the most vulnerably populations.
- Aeschlimann told an anecdote about a patient who took Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine after being diagnosed with COVID-19. The drugs, which have not been approved as treatment for the virus because they have no efficacy against it and can indeed be dangerous, proved not to work and the patient was ultimately hospitalized. “This patient’s severe COVID-19 infection and costly hospitalization could have been prevented in at least two ways: either by vaccination before the illness occurred, or by the prompt administration of proven effective therapies such as monoclonal antibody infusions.” He noted that the prescriptions the patient had were issued by a doctor in another state, and filled by a pharmacy in Florida. He investigated and found that the specialty online pharmacy was tied to past fraudulent activity. He called out a series of entities that promote unproven therapies, and that attack pharmacists that refuse to offer unproven therapies while profiting from the propagation of ineffective treatments.
- Dr. Bhattacharya took his turn to indict “media corporations, Big Tech corporations” who he said had constructed a “massive edifice of algorithms and fact checkers to correct misinformation” which he referred to “jokingly” as the “ministry of truth.” He said this infrastructure has “contributed to and exacerbated” the misinformation problem around COVID-19. He pointed to content moderation decisions that Facebook had taken to “censor posts” related to expert information, and a content moderation decision by YouTube that he said censored his own statement around research on masking children at an event he participated in with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. He said the efforts had boosted demand for “lockdown and COVID restrictions” which he asserts were unnecessary.
- Kumar spoke about her own mother, who she says received videos through her family that suggested she should not trust the vaccine, her doctors or the government. “The makers of the video know that peer to peer transmission is more effective to dupe users and create a sense that they must share this coveted information,” she said. She said her organization, Voto Latino, found that among Latino responders, 51% said they would not get the COVID vaccine, and that the number rose to 67% in Spanish-speaking households. She described the work her organization is doing with Media Matters, an organization that monitors right wing disinformation, to monitor disinformation, and work that Voto Latino is doing to counter it. She called on the platforms to take action.
Republicans on the subcommittee used their time to raise concerns about the content moderation practices of the tech firms, and to press questions about whether the United States funded research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology that may have had something to do with the origin of the coronavirus (the so-called “lab leak hypothesis”). The Ranking Member of the subcommittee, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), used his time to question whether action by politicians, news organizations and technology platforms to limit misinformation is itself dangerous.
“We all denounce attempts to spread COVID disinformation, and we condemn groups or individuals who sell or promote counterfeit PPE or otherwise profit from unregulated or potentially dangerous treatments that put individuals’ health and safety at risk,” said Rep. Scalise. “But there is another type of COVID misinformation that is equally dangerous for our public discourse. Many Democrats like to label anything they disagree with, or find inconvenient or off their message, as ‘misinformation’ or ‘disinformation’. COVID has become a major battle in our current culture war. I’ve been saying the for more than a year that the politicization of COVID and vaccine mandates is shameful and must be stopped. The vaccines have proven safe and effective and have saved countless lives. But I’m very concerned with the path the Biden administration has taken to shame, bully and end the careers of Americans that don’t exactly the way that they do.”
Rep. Scalise went on to assert that “Big Tech, with online platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have arbitrarily and inconsistently censored speech with little transparency and no independent oversight or due process in the name of ‘misinformation.'” In his opening comments and in a round of discussion with Dr. Bhattacharya, he referenced concerns he had about how claims about the origin of the coronavirus were handled. Facebook, for instance, had limited the spread of claims that the virus may have had a man-made origin, but had to reverse its policy when new facts revived the debate.
Rep. Jim Jordan, R-OH, used his time rail against the content moderation practices of the tech platforms.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-NY, asked Dr. Koltai if tech firms were doing enough to monitor and remove misinformation. Dr. Koltai said platforms had shown improvements, but that “anyone can go on the platform” and find vaccine misinformation. “You still see posts and content on Facebook, on many different platforms that vaccines are not safe and aren’t efficacious. I think everyone here can agree that vaccines are safe and efficacious.” She said platforms could de-prioritize or de-rank sources that push vaccine misinformation, and pointed to how ephemeral content on products like Instagram Stories are used to promote misinformation.
One of the more productive exchanges came at the prompt of Rep. Bill Foster, D-IL. Rep. Foster sympathized with his colleagues on the confusion caused by the information vacuum at the beginning of the pandemic. He raised the lost opportunity at the outset of the pandemic to set up randomized trials to study known safe medicines for the treatment of COVID-19. Dr. Bhattacharya and Dr. Aeschlimann agreed that more needed to be done at the outset to ramp up trials quickly and to address the information vacuum around potential treatements.
Justin Hendrix is CEO and Editor of Tech Policy Press, a new nonprofit media venture concerned with the intersection of technology and democracy. Previously, he was Executive Director of NYC Media Lab. He spent over a decade at The Economist in roles including Vice President, Business Development & Innovation. He is an associate research scientist and adjunct professor at NYU Tandon School of Engineering. Opinions expressed here are his own.