This statement was originally published on pen.org on 2 September 2020.
As the world rapidly responded to the COVID-19 pandemic in the first half of 2020, so too did the social media platforms. As the world closed down, social media usage shot up, with an increasing number of people connecting and getting news and information about the virus for more hours every day. The platforms made public commitments, formed partnerships with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health organizations and agencies, and contended with the impact of the pandemic on their own organizations and workforces. This flurry of policies, operational changes, and features announced by the platforms sought to address not only the public health crisis but also the “infodemic” of disinformation and invective that has accompanied it. It also responded to unprecedented levels of use from communities and countries stuck at home, and the need to keep on top of the PR cycle in the context of renewed scrutiny and a dip in public opinion.
Due to the outsized impact that these platforms have on free expression and open discourse, PEN America has watched these developments very closely. For the first six months of 2020, PEN America tracked policy, operational, and functional updates major social media companies made in response and relation to the pandemic. We found that while all of them moved quickly to adjust policies, the platforms pursued their own distinct priorities and strategies. Facebook and Twitter moved to stop the spread of conspiracy theories and refine their advertising policies, while LinkedIn, Snapchat, and Reddit have generally focused less on responding directly to COVID-19 and instead provided updates related to the operation of their own platforms and user interests.
Here, we share our preliminary findings and also outline how a lack of substantive transparency from the companies (necessitating this kind of survey in the first place) is an impediment to tracking how such policy changes impact digital free expression.
The dataset provided here tracks relevant actions and announcements by 13 of the largest and most influential tech and social media companies and subsidiaries from January through June 2020. Apple (including its operating systems and devices), Facebook (including the main app, Instagram, and WhatsApp), Google (including Ads and YouTube), Microsoft (including LinkedIn), Nextdoor, Pinterest, Reddit, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter are included. While not comprehensive, the data represents an effort to capture as many of the most relevant updates as possible within the given time period. In many cases, we provide links to reporting that help contextualize the press release language surrounding the updates. We have not attempted to track research activities and informal remarks by executives in media interviews, nor to perform investigation of changes made behind the scenes. We have also made judgment calls about which announcements are relevant to include. For example, Facebook’s major announcements in May about the launch of “Facebook Shops” are not included; although one could make an argument that the timing of that launch was relevant given the economic downturn and its impact on small businesses, we did not feel this was among the most directly relevant changes made during the period under review.
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Source: MEDIA FEED