Website builders take a hands-off approach to policing fake news

According to a new study by Website Planet, less than a third of companies offering website building tools removed potentially dangerous misinformation about COVID-19.

The web-building resource deliberately created outlandish fake news in paid accounts with seven of the most popular CMS providers: Weebly, Jimdo, GoDaddy, Webnode, Squarespace, WordPress, and Google Sites.

This included deliberately catchy conspiracy theories such as COVID-19 is a man-made virus or a bioweapon, and others that claimed vaccination is ineffective or dangerous.

The same content was used for each site, and the “about us” sections presented the site owners as “truth seekers and experts” without any evidence.

Website Planet then contacted each website creator to report the misinformation. Unfortunately, although many have policies explicitly prohibiting fake news, or at least harmful information, only two in seven have removed the offensive content.

Jimdo and Weebly acted quickly, albeit in the latter case without informing the person who filed the complaint.

Squarespace and WordPress have said they will investigate, but no action has been taken at the time of writing. In Squarespace’s case, the company has a clear policy prohibiting “false, fraudulent, inaccurate, or misleading content,” although WordPress takes a more passive approach, effectively stating that content is the responsibility of the customer.

GoDaddy and Webnode responded to say they would not remove offensive content. In the case of the former, he claimed that “as a hosting provider, it is not for us to determine whether the site you mentioned actually engages in illegal activities”.

Webnode claimed that the misinformation was not an obvious misuse of its services.

Google Sites did not respond to searchers at all. Although its Abuse Program Policies section had an entire section devoted to fake news, there was no relevant misinformation drop-down category to select from when reporting abuse, according to the report.

The inconsistent response from these tech companies contrasts with the activities of major social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, which actively suppress misinformation about COVID-19.

“People often invoke the First Amendment to argue that they should be able to say whatever they want without consequences — but that’s a misinterpretation,” Website Planet said.

“Freedom of expression does not mean that anyone can say anything, regardless of its effects. You may not threaten, defame or otherwise endanger people with your words. And there’s a big difference between censoring content that doesn’t serve personal interests and restricting content that increases a risk to public health.