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Weekly Digest: All Eyes on the Platforms

Welcome to The Fix’s weekly news digest! Every Friday, we bring you five important news stories from the world of media — and try to put them in a wider context.

As the pandemic flares up across Europe, and the United States is approaching an important presidential election, the West pays even more attention to disinformation, online harassment and hate speech — and big social media platforms’ unique role in tackling these problems.

Platforms in the News

This week, we’ve seen several news stories that highlight how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other platforms are grappling with these issues, in response both to general challenges and to specific stories.

Facebook announced this week it would ban Holocaust denial and opposition to vaccines from the platform.

The first move comes amid “an increase in antisemitic violence” and, perhaps, a broader rise of online harassment. Two years ago, Facebook’s leader Mark Zuckerberg believed that Holocaust denial, although outreageous, should not be censored on the platform — but his thinking “has evolved” since then.

The second regulation has been instituted in the wake of pandemic misinformation, particularly anti-vaccine content. Previously, Facebook prohibited vaccine misinformation but allowed anti-vaccine content without false claims. 

On Wednesday, Facebook and Twitter moved to limit the spread of New York Post’s story about alleged exposed files of Hunter Biden, US presidential nominee Joe Biden’s son.

Both social networks are in tricky waters here. On the one hand, there are serious suspicions about the veracity of Hunter Biden’s alleged emails. However, Facebook and Twitter immediately faced criticism for lack of transparency and arbitrary censorship, especially from US conservatives.

As Los Angeles Times‘ Jon Healey puts it, the platforms are in a “no-win position” here — and the main problem lies in the scale of the influence they have accumulated. 

In the meanwhile, YouTube became the latest platform to take action against QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory “about a cabal of satanic pedophiles running the world”, which has built a large community and led to real-life violence in the US. QAnon started in 2017 but gained steam in recent months.

According to New York Times’ Kevin Roose, YouTube’s platform has played a big role “in moving QAnon from the fringes to the mainstream”. Thus, its ramping up against QAnon is an important step.

Platforms in New Research

Apart from immediate news, recently we’ve seen more research data on the spread of misinformation in social media.

According to new research cited by New York Times, the scale of misinformation on Facebook has increased in recent years.

Compared with 2016, the number of interactions (likes, comments and shares) with “news outlets that regularly publish falsehoods and misleading content” has tripled. However, it is hard to estimate whether or not more people are seeing misinformation now than several years ago because Facebook doesn’t make post reach data public.

The rise of misinformation has led to a greater reliance on fact-checking. According to Axios, fact-checking “went mainstream” in the Trump era. The number of fact-checking organizations increased by 200% in recent years

Fact-checking seems an obvious part of media stories today, but Axios reminds that “it wasn’t long ago that news organizations were skeptical about including fact-checks in everyday reporting”.

Bonus — Five more (non-platform) stories you might want to check out:

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