Kevin O'Neill: Tough battle to combat coronavirus falsehoods

Kevin O'Neill: Tough battle to combat coronavirus falsehoods
The problem is aided by the ease and speed with which false or misleading claims can spread on social media.

As governments intensify their efforts to fight the spread of the coronavirus, another war is being waged in the background: the fight to contain misinformation, bogus claims and conspiracy theories.

From false claims about sources to promises of miracle cures, social media has been flooded with false information that is, at best, misleading and, at worst, damaging.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has engaged the help of tech giants like Facebook, Twitter and Google to aid in its efforts to eliminate fake news but the battle is becoming more difficult.

There is so much false information being shared that the WHO has termed it an “infodemic”. This is exactly what it sounds like: “an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it”.

The problem is aided by the ease and speed with which false or misleading claims can spread on social media.

As was the case during recent political campaigns, there are dozens of pages sharing inaccurate and false information. While social media giants are making efforts to proactively engage, they are fighting an uphill battle.

It is not a new phenomenon. The anti-science and anti-vaccination movements have grown in voice in recent years, while outbreaks of the likes of zika and ebola in recent years have attracted theories that these were lab creations too. The issue is the rate at which information spreads.

Speaking on BBC’s Newsnight, Anna-Sophie Harling of NewsGuard, which rates the credibility of news and information websites, said that in the UK and US, the number of users accessing safe and reliable information from the WHO, the US Centre for Disease Control (CDC) and the UK’s NHS is dwarfed by the numbers sourcing information from social media and unreliable websites.

This includes sites publishing baseless conspiracy theories, such as the idea the virus was manufactured in a Chinese lab, which is getting millions of interactions and shares on social media, in comparison to posts from the WHO, which are getting just tens of thousands.

The Guardian noted one Twitter user who claimed antibacterial hand sanitiser is useless against the virus. The tweet racked up a quarter of a million likes and almost 10,000 retweets, reaching millions of users before it was deleted.

The claim was entirely false but, ultimately, the lie spread faster and further than the truth.

This is why social media platforms are investing in efforts to stop falsehoods before they take off.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg this week announced it will provide the WHO with “as many free ads as they need” to combat the spread of misinformation.

A spokesperson for the social network told the Irish Examiner it is “working with the global public health community via the WHO and locally with the HSE to keep people safe”.

In Ireland, if you search for ‘coronavirus’ on Facebook or #coronavirus on Instagram, users are prompted to visit the HSE’s page for accurate information.

Facebook says its fact-checkers are working to limit misinformation. When a post is flagged by fact-checkers, it is limited on Facebook and Instagram, for example.

Similarly, Twitter partnered with the HSE to launch a new dedicated search prompt to ensure that those on the service in Ireland are met with credible, authoritative information first when they come to the service for information about the #coronavirus.

Similar prompts are live in almost 30 countries already.

Twitter has updated its Inappropriate Content Policy to “halt attempts from advertisers to use Covid-19 to target inappropriate ads”.

Government entities will be permitted to promote ads on coronavirus.

While these initiatives are likely having some impact, it is hard to measure just how broad their reach is.

In recent weeks, there have been numerous WhatsApp messages circulated, positing various claims, ranging from claims about cases in parts of the country where none have yet been reported to videos claiming to show hospital staff responding to a case.

Time and time again, the HSE has reminded people to follow official channels for updates and information but, ultimately, these pleas are often lost in the sea of misinformation.

As the number of cases increases, so too will the level of panic. As this happens, it will become more and more important for social media, mainstream media and authorities to be proactive in ensuring that the reality of the outbreak is communicated and not the falsehoods.

    Useful information
  • The HSE have developed an information pack on how to protect yourself and others from coronavirus. Read it here
  • Anyone with symptoms of coronavirus who has been in close contact with a confirmed case in the last 14 days should isolate themselves from other people - this means going into a different, well-ventilated room alone, with a phone; phone their GP, or emergency department - if this is not possible, phone 112 or 999 and in a medical emergency (if you have severe symptoms) phone 112 or 999

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