The gradual growth of the number of administered COVID-19 jabs has brought the prospects of returning back to normal and achieving herd immunity against the disease closer to reality across the European Union. The situation in the EU member states such as Bulgaria and Romania where the willingness to get vaccinated remains low demonstrates that this may be, however, easier said than done.
In the online space, the spread of harmful content and disinformation on COVID-19 has kept the social media platforms busy. On May 10, YouTube and Facebook took down the “Hold Up” COVID-19 conspiracy video, the French version of the “Plandemic” U.S. COVID-19 conspiracy film. The video documentary and its abstracts about how the COVID-19 pandemic was secretly orchestrated by global elites to control and eliminate the population were back and forth available for French users on the platforms for more than six months.
In the United States, Facebook and YouTube removed the original English version three days after it was uploaded online in May 2020. This demonstrates not only how easily the harmful content can circulate online in other languages, but also the different standards when it comes to taking action against the spread of harmful content online based on the country and language. Given the volume of content posted on social media every second around the globe, can Big Tech actually do something about it?
English leads, but there are more than 6,500 languages in the world
With around 1.2 billion internet users, English is, without a doubt, the language number one when it comes to the online world. It is, however, not the only language in which the online space communicates. Out of the 5 billion world internet users, about 2.4 billion communicate in the other nine most often spoken languages: English, Chinese, Spanish, Arabic, Portuguese, Indonesian/Malaysian, French, Japanese, Russian and German. Another billion internet users communicate online in a language different from the ten most often spoken languages.
In the European Union, which is home to twenty-four official languages, more than 397 million citizens are active internet users. The platforms appear to have responded to such a linguistic diversity. Both YouTube and Facebook offer their services in all the EU’s 24 main languages. In some cases, they went even beyond that by including tiny minority languages like Galician, a language closely related to Portuguese and spoken by about 2 million people in northwestern Spain.
Facebook and YouTube, however, delayed the response to the spread of the “Hold Up” conspiracy video in France and further research conducted across the world suggest that the platforms’ respect of linguistic diversity and diverse language options do not meet platforms’ appropriate investment into the enforcement of their very own policies. Tech giants need to take responsibility which arises with the services they have decided to offer.
Disinformation continues to flourish in platforms’ backyard
Tackling the spread of disinformation beyond English content has brought many hiccups to the EU market. The French twin of the “Plandemic” COVID-19 conspiracy video is just another piece of a bigger picture that reveals the perceived differing rules enforcement across the European Union.
In Spain and Portugal, YouTube and Twitter took action against the Epoch Media Group-tied TierraPura.org for violating the community standards after several fact checkers flagged th Argentine outlet for the spread of health misinformation, which was disseminated by a “group of concerned citizens” and included claims about the man-made origin of the virus, questioned the seriousness of the disease and made references to the “Plandemic”. Though the media outlet managed to survive on Facebook, it shares content that may be potentially “censored” by the platform do to the fact that COVID-19-related posts appear only on its Telegram and Signal channels.
On the other side of the bloc, in Eastern Europe, the takedown of disinformation remains a challenge. Though the American right-wing conspiracy peddler Alex Jones faced a ban on all major platforms for violating the US’ hate speech policy, some of the posts containing Jones’ claims are yet to be taken down on Slovak Facebook. The French AFP (Agence France Presse) agency with one person specifically employed for Slovakia is the only designated third-party fact checker for the Slovak market of almost 3.5 million users. In Hungary, with more than 7 million users, there is none.
Tackling disinformation cannot have double standards
The COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally revealed that with great power comes great responsibility. To tackle the infodemic, the embracement and recognition of linguistic diversity is another step required, as no language community is immune to the spread of disinformation. The ease of access and inclusion of the broader non-English speaking language community needs to go hand in hand with a proper distribution of proportionate funds that enforces the standards that platforms themselves have already pledged to follow. Yet, the problem of different standards does not end here. The systematic solution to the problem will require a third, final step: the whole-of-society approach.
For now, the perception of double standards by non-English users seems to remain a challenge to be solved. Without accountability and responsibility put upon all actors involved, digital platforms and governments alike, the fight against the society’s vulnerabilities and the digital twin of the COVID-19 pandemic may become a vicious circle otherwise.