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Twitter comes under fire over Chinese disinformation on coronavirus

Twitter comes under fire over Chinese disinformation on coronavirus
© Greg Nash

Twitter is being pulled into the middle of a fight between the Trump administration and China over the coronavirus.

Republican lawmakers and Trump allies have been stepping up pressure on the social media platform to crack down on disinformation from Chinese government officials and agencies about the virus and its spread.

While Twitter has sought to curb posts including fake medical advice or recommendations, critics say the company is not going far enough to address government propaganda from China.

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The most high-profile case of disinformation being spread by Chinese officials comes from the deputy director-general of the Information Department of China’s Foreign Ministry, Lijian Zhao.

Earlier this month, he tweeted a link to an article from conspiracy site Global Research claiming that the novel coronavirus originated in the United States, sharing it with his nearly half-million followers. Zhao has also suggested on Twitter that the U.S. military brought the coronavirus to his country. The World Health Organization has concluded that the disease first appeared in the Chinese province of Hubei.

Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoTreasury sanctions Iran's ambassador to Iraq Bipartisan group of senators call on Trump to sanction Russia over Navalny poisoning House lawmakers call for continued assistance to Lebanon MORE said last week that the government has determined that China, along with Russia and Iran, are actively engaged in coronavirus misinformation campaigns on social media to sow discord and confusion in the U.S.

Twitter has so far chosen to keep the misleading content from Chinese government officials up on its platform, despite a policy change earlier this month banning posts that deny expert recommendations, promote fake treatments and prevention techniques, or misleadingly claim to be from authorities.

The social media giant said Tuesday that “official government accounts engaging in conversation about the origins of the virus and global public conversation about potential emergent treatments will be permitted, unless the content contains clear incitement to take a harmful physical action” after lawmakers raised concerns about Zhao’s tweets.

That commitment to the platform’s broad exemptions for public figures has drawn criticism from several conservative voices.

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“When Twitter goes so full Chinese propaganda that they’ve even lost The Daily Beast…” Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMore than 300 military family members endorse Biden Five takeaways from the final Trump-Biden debate Biden: 'I would transition from the oil industry' MORE Jr., the president’s son, wrote, quote-tweeting the outlet that first reported Zhao’s tweets would not be taken down.

Sen. John CornynJohn CornynThe Hill's Campaign Report: Obama to hit the campaign trail l Biden's eye-popping cash advantage l New battleground polls favor Biden Quinnipiac poll finds Biden, Trump tied in Texas Biden endorses Texas Democratic House candidate Julie Oliver MORE (R-Texas) similarly criticized Twitter.

“Although Twitter launched a PR campaign to tout its new measures against disinformation ... the social media site has decided that false information tweeted by senior Chinese officials about the coronavirus’ origin, does not violate its terms of service,” he tweeted.

Sen. Ben SasseBenjamin (Ben) Eric SasseSweden bans use of Huawei, ZTE equipment in new 5G networks McConnell aims for unity amid growing divisions with Trump Cornyn: Relationships with Trump like 'women who get married and think they're going to change their spouse' MORE (R-Neb.) and Rep. Mike GallagherMichael (Mike) John GallagherFederal commission issues recommendations for securing critical tech against Chinese threats Government watchdog recommends creation of White House cyber director position Hillicon Valley: 'Fortnite' owner sues Apple after game is removed from App Store | Federal agencies seize, dismantle cryptocurrency campaigns of major terrorist organizations MORE (R-Wis.) went a step further, sending a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey last week urging him to remove the Chinese Communist Party from the platform.

“It is clear that Chinese Communist Party officials are using Twitter to disseminate propaganda in the midst of a dangerous global crisis,” they wrote.

“Even worse, this propaganda obscures and confuses users over the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and potentially undermines efforts to contain and control the outbreak. We believe this behavior more than warrants their removal from the platform.”

Experts who spoke with The Hill said that the pressure on Twitter to eliminate exemptions for public figures is emblematic of a larger problem with social media platforms trying to balance protecting political speech with cracking down on online disinformation.

“The situation illustrates the problematic nature of the policy which may make sense when we think about it in connection with American elected officials who we want to allow to debate the issues of the day even if they’re misleading,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, “But [it] looks very different when it is protecting foreign officials who for malign reasons are spreading flat out falsehoods about a pandemic.”

Daniel Sinclair, a researcher of Chinese disinformation and state media, told The Hill that Twitter’s difficulty dealing with coronavirus misinformation is especially concerning because Beijing has used similar tactics before with the protests in Hong Kong.

“These efforts aren’t new, it’s the same playbook with a new problem for Beijing,” he said.

There are domestic concerns with the exemption for public figures in Twitter’s coronavirus misinformation policy as well. Trump and Republican lawmakers have repeatedly called the coronavirus the “Chinese” or “Wuhan” virus despite the World Health Organization explicitly warning against doing so, saying that it could lead to racism against Asian people.

“It’s pretty clear that the Trump administration is using the ‘Wuhan Virus’ to distance itself from its failed efforts in its own disinformation tactic,” Sinclair said.

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Trump has also used Twitter to tout the effectiveness of anti-malaria pills to fight coronavirus, despite health officials’ warnings that not enough is known about its effects to draw a conclusion.

As the pandemic progresses, experts said Twitter is likely to face more pressure to take action on deceptive tweets from public officials, be they from America or China.

“Twitter and Facebook are still figuring out how to walk that line,” Nick Monaco, research director at the Institute for the Future’s Digital Intelligence Lab, told The Hill.

And there are warnings that the disinformation problem is likely to spread. The European Union has accused Russia of also trying to create “panic” over the pandemic.

“It’s a really tough policy question, but it’s an important one that’s going to continue to be strategically exploited,” said Monaco.