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As the coronavirus continues to spread, it has laid, what the World Health Organisation calls, an ‘infodemic’ among people. The more you open the newspaper or any social media site, the virus is the first topic that pops up.
Initially, the news was that the virus was just the flu and not a very big concern for people. But, as offices and schools started shutting down followed by malls, theatres and clubs, we all started to wonder about the fatality of the crisis. But with all these, there was an overabundance of information available online, which made it more difficult for people to get the correct news from a trustworthy source when they most need it.
This infodemic was soon joined in by social media sites, and, brought all kinds of disinformation — such as how rolling our 5G damages the immune system causing coronavirus; how coronavirus is a product of an experiment gone wrong in China; or how Rothschild family owns the patent of coronavirus to gain more money from people. The most interesting ones are where there was a false claim that Daniel Radcliffe contracted coronavirus or that it is spread by people in China eating bats, fuelling racism online. All these might sound bizarre to you; however, some dangerous conspiracy theories mislead medical advice, and some false claims stated that children are immune to coronavirus. If people follow such information, they could put their life at risk.
As the spread of the coronavirus coming parallel to the spread of misinformation — under immense pressure from governments and medical experts — social media giants have taken bold strides in joining hands to tackle the misinformation spread on their platforms. Michael Kratsios, CTO of the US & Deputy Assistant to the President at the White House Office, said, “Cutting-edge technology companies and major online platforms will play a critical role in this all-hands-on-deck.” And with that in hand, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Tiktok, Dropbox, YouTube, LinkedIn and Reddit recently published a statement stating that they are all working closely on this issue. They even got together with WHO to discuss ways to deal with fake news about the virus.
Spreading The Right Information
One of the most straightforward proven strategies to stop the spread of false information is by providing the right information to people. WHO has been putting a lot of effort by partnering with Facebook and Tiktok to promote correct information on their platform. In fact, in a recent article by WHO, they busted one of the myths related to coronavirus by stating that “Contrary to what some believe, the virus can be transmitted in all climates, so the coming summer heat is not going to stop the virus. Taking a hot bath also won’t heal COVID-19, just like eating garlic and rinsing your nose with saline won’t. Washing your hands frequently, avoiding physical contact and not touching your face are still the measures advised by the health organisation.”
Another interesting way the industry is spreading right information is through their chatbots, through which, companies are providing updated schedules of flights and country borders. Joining the revolution, WeChat is also offering its users with free online health consultation services.
Tackling False Information
Misinformation has become a severe issue for social media, with Facebook, in particular, being in the limelight in recent years over its role in spreading fake news. And, as the pandemic continues to grow, troublemakers take advantage of people’s curiosity to seek out information and monetise the opportunity with false claims. While it’s easy to promote the right information, it is equally challenging to demote false information that is already circulating on the internet.
Social media companies, which were already struggling to keep up with the content moderation cases on their platforms, have been making proactive efforts to combat misinformation about coronavirus.
Facebook started its deployment of artificial intelligence to flag fake news and malicious content and pass them to fact-checkers before sharing. In a recent blog post, Facebook said that “With fewer people available for human review, during this coronavirus outbreak, we’ll continue to prioritise imminent harm and increase our reliance on proactive detections in other areas.” Currently, the company is working with 56 fact-checking partners in 46 languages to rate fake news and alert users before sharing it.
Amazon is also working towards taking down a million advertisements of products that are claiming to have effects on coronavirus. This includes banning advertisements selling fake medical face masks, advertising a limited supply or claim to offer complete protection against the virus. Twitter, also using machine learning and automation on their platform, however not willing to ban any accounts solely based on automated systems. They said, “sometimes posts lack the context that our teams bring, and this may result in us making mistakes”. However, YouTube, on the other hand, has ordered their full-time employees to work from home, and therefore relying entirely on their AI system. They stated in a blog that” this means the AI will start removing some content without human review, which might have some effect on those not violating the policies.”
TikTok, although being termed notorious, also works with third-party fact-checkers to highlight in-app notices around hashtags related to the coronavirus. Besides, Reddit has placed a banner at the top of its home page recently, providing accurate coronavirus information to its users to stop rumours of the count. The platform has blocked one of its communities, along with a warning sign, because of the high amount of misleading information being posted on it. In China, although the social content is strictly under the cyber administration, WHO has collaborated with Tencent and Weibo to counter rumours and misinformation.
Despite such efforts in hand, fake news is continuing to spread, and one of the key participants have always been these social media platforms. The algorithms that decide what users see on social media platforms typically focus on content that has the most engagement or has drawn the most attention get spread farthest. Experts believe this model is hugely responsible for the spread of false claims and misinformation online since bizarre or overwhelming content is usually good at grabbing people’s attention. The bottom line is that the battle against fake news is likely to last as long as the virus; however, the tech industry is putting its foot down on misinformation faster than before.
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Sejuti currently works as Senior Technology Journalist at Analytics India Magazine (AIM). Reach out at email@example.com