- Misinformation about the novel coronavirus outbreak is everywhere online, ranging from conspiracy theories to unverified reports to malicious campaigns carried out by scammers.
- The World Health Organisation has warned of a fake news “infodemic” amid the outbreak.
- Tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter are acting fast in an attempt to quash misinformation as quickly as possible.
- While major tech platforms have made fighting misinformation a goal in recent years, the coronavirus outbreak is testing their capacity to crack down on fake news during a global emergency.
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For years, fighting fake news has been a stated goal of major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Google.
Now, a flood of misinformation about COVID-19 outbreaks across the globe is putting tech companies’ policies on fake news to the test in real-time.
Conspiracy theories and false claims about the novel coronavirus have swirled as the illness spreads – the death toll surpasses 4,000 worldwide, with most deaths occurring in China, and major outbreaks have hit regions across Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and North America.
According to cybersecurity firm Check Point, 4,000 new websites that mention coronavirus in their name have been created this year, and 3 per cent of those are considered malicious. Disinformation experts say there’s little evidence of coordinated misinformation campaigns – the bigger threat is speculation and false rumours about coronavirus that spread organically on online forums.
One conspiracy theory gaining traction on social media alleges that coronavirus was developed in a lab by Chinese authorities. Others have used forums and Facebook groups to peddle unscientific cures for COVID-19.
Tech companies this week have attempted to intervene, with varying levels of success. Google announced a new 24-hour incident response team dedicated to coronavirus and has committed to scrubbing misinformation from Search and YouTube while promoting accurate information from health agencies. CEO Sundar Pichai reportedly told employees in a memo that this is a pivotal moment for the company, Bloomberg reported Tuesday.
“You’ve heard me talk about helpfulness in the context of moments big and small. This is one of those big moments,” Pichai wrote.
Facebook and Twitter have taken similar steps to ban content about coronavirus that could cause harm – both platforms announced tools this week that highlight government agency information under searches for coronavirus-related terms.
But unlike YouTube or Google Search, Facebook and Twitter also have to contend with misinformation spreading in private groups and messages, which is proving harder to moderate – a New York Times analysis identified a private Facebook group with more than 100,000 members in which conspiracy theories are running rampant.
As tech companies attempt to tackle misinformation, some government agencies are taking the fight against fake news into their own hands. The UK’s National Health Service launched its own counter-disinformation unit Monday, which will partner with tech companies in an attempt to lend more weight to the fight against false claims.