Aaron Ginn's article on Medium downplaying the risks of COVID-19, spreading unintentional misinformation.
Summary: In early 2020, with the world trying to figure out how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, one of the big questions faced by internet platforms was how to combat mis- or disinformation regarding the pandemic. This was especially complex, given that everyone -- including global health experts were trying to figure out what was accurate themselves, and as more information has come in, the understanding of the disease, how it spread, how to treat it, the level of risk, and much, much, has kept changing.
Given the fact that no one fully understood what was going on, plenty of people rushed in to try to fill the void with information. Most social media firms put in place policies to try to limit or take down misinformation or disinformation using a variety of policies and tactics. But determining what is misinformation as opposed to legitimate truth-seeking can be very tricky in the midst of a pandemic.
In late March, as the pandemic was hitting full swing, an article appeared on the website Medium by Aaron Ginn, a self-described Silicon Valley “growth hacker,” arguing that the response to COVID-19 was overblown and driven by “hysteria.” The piece included many citations of credible data and reports, but also included a few quotes significantly downplaying the risk of COVID-19, including saying that its “transmission rates are very similar to seasonal flu.”
The story started to spread widely, mainly after a number of Fox News hosts started tweeting it. As the story got more and more attention, Carl Bergstrom, a professor of biology at the University of Washington, decided to critique Ginn’s article in great detail via an extended Twitter thread. Bergstrom makes a fairly compelling case that Ginn’s lack of expertise in epidemiology led him to making a number of mistakes in his analysis, in particular, not understanding how viruses spread, and how that information is tracked. He also argued that Ginn cherry-picked certain data to support a thesis. Bergstrom and others started arguing that Ginn’s Medium piece was (perhaps not intentionally) misinformation.
Decisions to be made by Medium:
Questions and policy implications to consider:
Resolution: Medium chose to quickly take down Ginn’s piece about a day after it went up and 13 hours after it went “viral.” In fact, the article was taken down while Bergstrom was writing out his tweet thread critiquing it. Indeed, Bergstrom ended his thread early upon learning that the article was taken down.
That was not the end of things, however. The article was reposted to the site ZeroHedge, and copies were stored and reposted in other places as well. It also created a short-lived uproar among those who felt that Medium’s moderation decision was unfair. The Wall Street Journal celebrated Ginn, saying that after being “targeted for censorship,” it only made Ginn more influential. Other publications, including the NY Times, the Washington Post, and Slate, all wrote about the dangers of amateurish analysis in the midst of a pandemic.
Ginn, at one point, appeared to be fine with Medium’s decision, saying that internet platforms “are free to associate with whom they want,” (though he has since removed the tweet saying that). He has continued to use other social media to argue that the claims about COVID-19 were overblown.
We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!