By Jeff Horwitz
Facebook Inc. said it took down a post by President Trump playing down the deadliness Covid-19 Tuesday because it contained misinformation about the dangers of the coronavirus.
The social-media giant said its decision Tuesday was based on its policy against users spreading information deemed both wrong and harmful. Facebook said it makes determinations based on guidance from public-health authorities including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.
Mr. Trump's statement Tuesday that the seasonal flu is more dangerous for most people than the coronavirus is widely considered false by medical professionals. The disease already has killed more than 210,000 Americans, and the death rate per person infected has been far higher than historical rates for the seasonal flu, according to infectious disease experts.
"We remove incorrect information about the severity of Covid-19, and have now removed this post," said Facebook spokesman Andy Stone.
With its decision, the social network has moved to censor the president just weeks before Election Day. While Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has said the company doesn't wish to police political speech, Facebook has previously removed posts containing what it defines as coronavirus-related falsehoods. In March, Facebook removed content from Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro promoting the drug hydroxychloroquine as effective at treating the virus in all cases. U.S. regulators later warned against such use of the antimalarial, which was widely touted by Mr. Trump, citing a lack of evidence for its effectiveness.
"In this instance, they've really made their policy clear and applied it to another world leader," said Kate Klonick, an assistant professor at St. John's University School of Law who has studied Facebook's moderation policies, referring to the platform's removal of Mr. Trump's post. "They can't make a special America exception to this."
Twitter Inc. also took action Tuesday in response to the president's similar claim on its own platform. Instead of removing the post, the company appended a notice that his tweet violated its rules on spreading harmful information related to the virus but that "it may be in the public's interest for the Tweet to remain accessible."
The company has said it prefers that approach so Twitter users can respond publicly to their leaders and hold them accountable. Twitter said it also limited the distribution of Mr. Trump's tweet across its platform.
The tech companies' actions come a day after the president returned an unusually quiet White House following three days of hospitalization for Covid-19 as his administration continues to grapple with rising coronavirus infections among staffers. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the senior military advisers to the president, have gone into quarantine after a possible exposure earlier this week, defense officials said Tuesday.
In an apparent response to the two social-media companies' treatment of his posts, Mr. Trump posted on both platforms "REPEAL SECTION 230!!!," referring to the law that gives internet platforms the right to moderate content without taking on the legal responsibilities of publishers. A Trump campaign spokeswoman condemned the removal, saying that "attempts to silence the President will not stop him leading on this issue."
Both Republicans and Democrats have raised the prospect of changing the law in response to concerns that social-media companies are either restricting speech too heavily or failing to address routine abuses on their platforms. Social-media platforms have pushed back against those calls, saying that the law is foundational to free and open discourse online.
Medical professionals, meanwhile, have focused on trying to combat coronavirus misinformation on social media. A growing group of scientists and public-health officials have become increasingly active on Facebook and Twitter, among other platforms, and drawn large audiences during the pandemic.
Write to Jeff Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires