Fewer than a third of companies offering website creation tools took down potentially harmful misinformation about COVID-19, according to a new study from Website Planet.
The web building resource deliberately created outlandish fake news in paid-for accounts with seven of the most popular CMS providers: Weebly, Jimdo, GoDaddy, Webnode, Squarespace, WordPress and Google Sites.
This included deliberately eye-catching conspiracy theories such as that COVID-19 is a man-made virus or biological weapon, and others that claimed vaccination is ineffective or dangerous.
The same content was used for each site, and the “about us” sections presented the websites’ owners as “truth seekers and experts” without any evidence.
Website Planet then reached out to each website builder to flag the misinformation. Disappointingly, despite many having policies that explicitly prohibited fake news, or at least harmful information, just two out of the seven took down the offending content.
Jimdo and Weebly took action swiftly, although in the latter’s case without informing the individual who made the complaint.
Squarespace and WordPress said they would investigate, but no action was taken at the time of writing. In Squarespace’s case the firm has a clear policy prohibiting “false, fraudulent, inaccurate or deceiving content,” although WordPress takes a more hands-off approach, stating effectively that content is the customer’s responsibility.
GoDaddy and Webnode wrote back to say they would not be taking the offending content down. In the former’s case it claimed that “as a hosting provider, it is not our place to determine if the site you have mentioned is actually engaging in illegal activities.”
Webnode claimed the misinformation was not an obvious misuse of its services.
Google Sites did not reply to the researchers at all. Although its Abuse Program Policies section has an entire section devoted to fake news, there was no relevant drop-down misinformation category to select when reporting abuse, according to the report.
The inconsistent response by these tech firms contrasts the activities of the major social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which are actively removing misinformation on COVID-19.
“People often invoke the First Amendment to argue that they should be able to say whatever they want with no consequences – but that’s a misinterpretation,” argued Website Planet.
“Freedom of speech does not mean that anyone can say anything, regardless of its effects. You can’t go around threatening, defaming, or otherwise endangering people through your words. And there’s a big difference between censoring content that doesn’t serve one’s personal interests and restricting content that heightens a public health risk.”