Facebook has finally done the least it could do, for the first time ever deleting a post by Donald Trump for spreading misinformation about the novel coronavirus. Twitter in turn restricted Trump’s re-election campaign account from tweeting at all until it deleted an identical post.
Trump’s official Facebook account uploaded a series of clips from a Wednesday morning interview on Fox News’ insufferable Fox & Friends, where the president took the opportunity to spout off a series of lies such as that schools should reopen because the virus will “go away” and that Democrats are trying to keep them closed to hurt Republicans in the election. The @realDonaldTrump Twitter account also quote-tweeted a version of the video uploaded by the @TeamTrump campaign account, adding no further context.
In the specific clip that Facebook and Twitter said violated their policies, the president lied that children “are almost—and I would almost say definitely—but almost immune from this disease.” Trump added children “don’t have a problem, they just don’t have a problem.”
To be clear: While children are believed to be at reduced risk for developing serious illness if they contract the virus, evidence has been growing they can still spread it, and in rare cases children can develop symptoms similar to toxic shock and neurological complications including brain damage. Per the New York Times, studies also indicate that the risk differs based on the age of the child.
A Twitter spokesperson told Gizmodo via email, “The @TeamTrump Tweet you referenced is in violation of the Twitter Rules on COVID-19 misinformation. The account owner will be required to remove the Tweet before they can Tweet again.”
When asked why Trump’s account had not also been penalized, the spokesperson responded, “The action was taken on @TeamTrump because that account tweeted the original video.”
Trump’s own tweet remains up, though in the form of a link leading to a takedown notice. It’s not clear whether Twitter would have deleted the post if Trump himself had posted it, as its rules would seem to indicate, though the @TeamTrump account was back to posting as of Wednesday evening.
Facebook has technically moved to limit coronavirus misinformation promoted by Trump before: In July, it removed a video of a group of supposed doctors promoting a bogus miracle cure. Trump’s account had shared rather than directly uploaded that video.
Facebook didn’t immediately respond to Gizmodo’s request for comment. But spokesperson Andy Stone told the Washington Post the video “includes false claims that a group of people is immune from COVID-19 which is a violation of our policies around harmful COVID misinformation.”
Both Facebook and Twitter had waffled for months in the face of Trump’s use of their sites to send out misinformation, manipulated media, and threats of violence—a key element of the White House’s communications strategy and a major focus of his digital-heavy re-election campaign. The companies’ habit of steering clear of any politically inconvenient moderation decisions seemed clearly linked to the baseless conviction of many conservatives, including Trump and other Republican politicians, that tech companies are conspiring to censor them.
Twitter, which had long tried to dodge enforcing rules against the president’s account, flipped first. It began adding labels to some of Trump’s tweets in May 2020, attaching fact-check labels to ones promoting voter fraud conspiracy theories and taking similar action on a post in which Trump threatened to have the military shoot protesters for “glorifying violence.” Wednesday’s decision isn’t the first time Twitter has deleted content quote-tweeted by Trump, but it does appear to be the first time Twitter has deleted a campaign account post for reasons other than copyright.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg instead doubled down on inaction, taking to Fox News to proclaim he didn’t want to be the “arbiter of truth” and later bending himself into knots explaining why the post threatening protesters didn’t violate the company’s rules. At the time, Facebook was also facing significant blowback to its policy of letting politicians lie in ads, and the continued refusal to do anything triggered a walkout by the company’s own staff and an advertiser boycott.
The Trump campaign posted Facebook ads featuring Nazi iconography in mid-June, with much of the blowback centering on the company’s lax policies. Facebook deleted a doctored video purporting to show CNN lying about a “racist baby” from Trump’s account that month, though over a copyright claim rather than a misinformation violation. In late June, Zuckerberg did a rhetorical 180 and announced a series of policy changes that included prohibiting ads asserting groups with protected characteristics (such as ethnicity or refugee status) are a threat to the physical safety or health of others. He also announced that politicians would not receive any “newsworthiness exemption to content that incites violence or suppresses voting.”
In July, Facebook began attaching rather useless information modules to any posts concerning voting, including Trump’s. Zuckerberg also tried to further distance himself by denying rumors of a secret deal between him and Trump to give the president free rein on Facebook in exchange for favorable policy treatment.
Facebook has only budged so far, though, and characterized its decision as specifically about coronavirus misinformation. The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the company has continued to ignore rulings by its own fact-checkers about numerous lies in Trump ads, not even bothering to attach any kind of warning or label.
Correction: A prior version of this post misstated the month Facebook began attaching information labels to posts about voting. It was in July, not June. We regret the error.