WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Millions of social media users tuned in to a Monday press conference by a group called America's Frontline Doctors, claiming to expose an alleged "massive disinformation campaign" about the coronavirus.
Within a few hours, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube scrubbed the video from their platforms, saying the posts violated rules on coronavirus misinformation. That happened only after it racked up more than 17 million views and 600,000 shares on Facebook, more than 80,000 views on YouTube and was tweeted by President Donald Trump to his 84 million followers.
Amid the controversy, the official website of America's Frontline Doctors "expired" Tuesday afternoon. The site was removed by host SquareSpace under its policy "regarding activity that's false, fraudulent, inaccurate or deceiving."
The video was originally published across the social media channels of Breitbart News, a controversial media outlet founded by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Breitbart has a history of clashing with the social media giants over the publication of questionable coronavirus claims.
In a message to the news outlet, Twitter explained that it removed the video and put restrictions on Breitbart's account for "violating the policy on spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to COVID-19." Under that policy, the company requires "the removal of content that may pose a risk to people's health, including content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information."
Facebook policy communications director Andy Stone confirmed the platform took down the video, tweeting, "Yes, we removed it for sharing false information about cures and treatments for COVID-19."
In accordance with Facebook's policy on coronavirus misinformation, Stone said the company redirected users who reacted to, commented on or shared "harmful COVID-19-related misinformation" to a page of myths debunked by the World Health Organization.
The bulk of the press conference focused on promoting hydroxychloroquine as a "cure" for the virus and amplifying opinions about the virus that contradicted information published by leading public health agencies.
One Houston-based physician, Dr. Stella ImmanueI, claimed that nobody needs to get sick from the coronavirus because it has a cure: "It is called hydroxychloroquine, zinc and Zithromax," Immanuel said, claiming she had treated hundreds of patients with the drugs. "You don't need a mask. There's a cure," she continued. "You don't need people to be locked down. There is prevention and there is a cure."
After conducting large clinical trials, the Food and Drug Administration revoked emergency authorization for the use of hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine as an antiviral treatment for coronavirus. Hydroxychloroquine was touted by President Trump as a "game-changer" in the fight against COVID-19. He also reported taking the drug.
In revoking the emergency authorization last month, the FDA determined the "known potential benefits" of the drugs "do not outweigh the known and potential risks," which included "severe" side effects in certain patients.
About a dozen doctors participated in the press conference outside the U.S. Supreme Court. They were accompanied by Rep. Ralph Norman, R-S.C. Norman's office declined to comment on his involvement in the event.
Dr. Simone Gold, a board-certified emergency physician and attorney who once worked for the U.S. surgeon general, led the event. Dr. Gold argued that Americans were "captured by fear" of the coronavirus and purported to speak on behalf of the "thousands of physicians who have been silenced."
Dr. James Todaro spoke out against the alleged "censorship" of coronavirus information by big tech platforms. Todaro authored an early study on the use of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine in the treatment of COVID-19 that was blocked by Google.
"Facebook and YouTube have taken the most draconian measures to silence and [censor] people," Todaro argued. "This is coming from the CEO of YouTube, as well as [Facebook CEO] Mark Zuckerberg saying anything that goes against what the World Health Organization has said is subject to censorship."
The WHO has been criticized in the past for its response to the coronavirus as well as publishing early data that proved to be false, such as early claims that there was "no evidence" of person-top-person transmission of COVID-19.
The allegations of censorship come as members of Congress prepare to hear testimony from the chief executives of Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple Wednesday. The hearing is focused on antitrust issues but lawmakers will likely address the issue of disinformation
Social media has proven to be an effective amplifier of misinformation about public health issues. In fact, Facebook communities are even more effective at engaging people with misleading information than established health authorities are at promoting the facts, according to a study published earlier this year in the journal Nature.
Researchers at George Washington University warned that the spread of health disinformation and misinformation would continue to have important public health implications, especially on social media, which tends to amplify and create a false equivalence between reliable and unreliable information.