Internet giants fight the spread of coronavirus lies

Technology platforms are stepping up efforts to stop the spread of disinformation about the new coronavirus.

Technology platforms are stepping up efforts to stop the spread of disinformation about the new coronavirus.

SAN FRANCISCO: As the new coronavirus spreads globally, the online battle to maintain disinformation about the disease is also intensifying.

Google, Facebook and other platforms are struggling to keep up with scammers, trolls and others with bad intentions who routinely use big tragedies or disasters as an opportunity to deceive or manipulate people.

“Public concern for coronavirus is used as a means of inducing people to transmit disinformation and disinformation,” said University of Washington professor of biology Carl Bergstrom.

Internet companies took part in a meeting with the World Health Organization at the Facebook offices in Silicon Valley last week to discuss tactics such as promoting reliable information and checking dubious claims about coronavirus disease called Covid-19.

“(We must) combat the spread of rumors and misinformation,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus recently told AFP.

“To that end, we’ve worked with Google to make sure people looking for coronavirus information see WHO information at the top of their search results.”

Google search ranks authoritative sources higher when people are looking for health information and identifies the results or news that has been verified.

Ghebreyesus said that social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok have also taken steps to limit the spread of misinformation about the coronavirus.

Facebook said in a recent online post that it is focusing on claims that, if invoked, could increase the likelihood of someone getting sick or not getting adequate treatment.

“This includes claims related to false treatments or prevention methods – such as drinking bleach cures coronavirus – or claims that create confusion about available healthcare resources,” said Facebook post Kang-Xing Jin.

“We will also block or limit the hashtags used to spread misinformation on Instagram and we are conducting proactive sweeps to find and remove as much content as possible.”

Sale of snake oil

Bergstrom said that some misinformation about viruses is “people trying to sell snake oil products” like bogus cures or treatments, while others use attention-grabbing deceptions to drive online traffic that earns money from advertising.

Disinformation is also widespread by “actors” to fuel distrust of the factory in China or foment social instability in general, according to Bergstrom.

“There is an appetite for up-to-date, real-time information,” said Jevin West, co-author of a book on disinformation with Bergstrom.

“These actors can take advantage of this; things with more insane scenarios are more likely to be clicked than the report of that WHO doctor trying to calm fears.”

Facebook said that when users search for information related to the virus, the social network will display “educational popup” boxes with information believed to be credible.

Facebook also offers free advertising credits to organizations that run coronavirus educational campaigns.

YouTube-owned video sharing platform YouTube has changed its policies and products for several years to remove malicious content and prioritize authoritative content deemed reliable.

“We currently do not allow content that promotes dangerous remedies or cures, such as videos that claim that harmful substances or treatments can have health benefits,” said YouTube.

Last year YouTube began providing links to reliable information along with videos on “subjects subject to disinformation” and added coronaviruses to that list.


Social media giants have also strengthened a number of fact controllers, hiring outside parties like AFP News Wire, to sort the truth out of fiction, although there are questions about their effectiveness.

A recent study published in the journal Science Advances suggested that fact-checking has done little to stem the flood of misinformation about other epidemics such as Zika, Ebola and yellow fever.

The researchers said that “current approaches to fighting disinformation and conspiracy theories of epidemics and epidemics can be ineffective or even counterproductive” and may even cause “collateral” harm by undermining trust in fact-based disease information.

Bergstrom and West wondered if the social media giants optimized for virality could stem the tide of misinformation and deception.

“The social media company that claims to be an active participant in the fight against disinformation is like (the tobacco maker) Philip Morris who claims to be an active participant in the fight against lung cancer,” said Bergstrom.