Social media struggles to counter coronavirus misinformation


The world’s top social media platforms are trying to push users toward fact-driven and reputable sources as sensationalist misinformation about the deadly coronavirus spreads online.

But wild conspiracy theories and misleading advice about the coronavirus, which has infected almost 10,000 people in China so far, are continuing to spread largely unabated on platforms like Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and other networks with billions of users overall.

And U.S. lawmakers, many of whom are working to publicize trustworthy information about the little-understood health epidemic, say they want the platforms to do more to stave off the wave of misinformation.

“These lies can cause immediate and tangible harm to people, and the platforms must act to stop them from spreading,” House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) said in a statement to The Hill.

“It’s critical that Americans receive verified, trustworthy information about the coronavirus and heed the advice of our country’s public health officials as we learn more about its potential impact here at home,” Pallone said.

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), a member of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee focused on health, sent a letter Friday to the heads of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok pressing them to do more to curb coronavirus disinformation.

“During a global health emergency, it is vital to the public interest that individuals have access to timely and accurate information,” she wrote.

“As expert’s knowledge and understanding about this virus grows, so too will the necessity of accurate and reliable information for the world,” Dingell added. “As global companies, a rampant spread of inaccurate information will have a decidedly negative impact on the response efforts to contain and mitigate this global health emergency.” 

She posed a series of questions to the companies about how they are working to kneecap the spread of falsehoods and how closely they are working with leading health bodies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO). 

The WHO on Thursday declared a public health emergency of international concern over the outbreak of coronavirus, upping the ante for the platforms as they grapple with how much responsibility to assume over the false claims and hysteria emanating from their users. 

So far, experts who spoke to The Hill said they are monitoring several specific strains of misinformation, including conspiracy theories that the U.S. or Chinese government created the virus, false rumors linking billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates to the disease, and a debunked narrative that the coronavirus was caused by Chinese people drinking “bat soup.” Many of the falsehoods and narratives that gained traction this week have racist undertones, implying the eating habits of Chinese people are to blame for the outbreak.

Dr. Arthur Caplan, the founding head of the division of medical ethics at New York University’s School of Medicine, told The Hill that much of the rhetoric he has come across online has a “xenophobic” tone. 

The social media giants — Twitter, Facebook and Google — have chosen to fight the spread of coronavirus-related misinformation in part by promoting authoritative sources. When a user searches “coronavirus” on Twitter, for instance, they are met with a banner that reads “know the facts,” with a link to the CDC’s summary page on the illness.

“We’ve launched a new dedicated search prompt to ensure that when you come to the service for information about the #coronavirus, you’re met with credible, authoritative information first,” Twitter wrote in a blog post on Wednesday.

Facebook, meanwhile, announced Thursday that it will surface “educational pop-up[s] with credible information” when users search for information related to the virus based on guidance from the WHO.

As of Friday, searching “coronavirus” on Facebook and viewing the coronavirus hashtag on Instagram did not trigger any pop ups or direct users to credible information. An official for Facebook told The Hill that it will roll out the feature “in the coming days.” 

Google on Thursday announced it is partnering with the WHO to pin “news, safety tips, information and resources from the WHO website” at the top of its powerful search page when users look for coronavirus-related information. 

“It’s time for facts, not fear,” tweeted Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO. “We appreciate Google, Facebook, TencentGlobal, TikTok and Twitter’s efforts to combat misinformation and rumors on #2019nCoV & direct users to reliable sources.” 

“We ask all digital companies to step up and help the world beat this outbreak,” he added.

Some experts have raised concerns that the nature of social media itself makes misinformation spread quickly during disease outbreaks.

“Social media rewards engagement,” Brendan Nyhan, a government professor at Dartmouth College, told The Hill. “People peruse news feeds and interact with content that grabs our attention. And, as human beings, we’re highly attentive to threats and negative information.”

TikTok, a mega-popular social media app built around short videos, has appended a label warning users to “verify facts using trusted sources, including the WHO” when they search for terms related to the virus. 

But the approach hasn’t stopped TikTok’s young user base from making sometimes-misleading jokes about the outbreak. One of the top posts on TikTok’s #coronavirus page, which had garnered more than 157,000 likes by Friday evening, features a screenshot of an article that says “coronavirus is spread through the EYES making surgical masks useless.” 

“Coronavirus is turning into something else,” the post reads.

“While we encourage our users to have respectful conversations about the subjects that matter to them, we remove deliberate attempts to misrepresent authoritative sources of news,” a TikTok official said. 

Several of the platforms are opting to go further than just lifting up factual sources — they’re vowing to take down egregious instances of misinformation, an uphill battle on platforms like Facebook and TikTok that boast enormous user bases.

Facebook said it will start removing posts containing misinformation about the outbreak, a rare move for a company which normally chooses to deprioritize false posts instead. 

And TikTok, which recently unveiled a new policy against misinformation in general, has already received criticism for hosting videos with hundreds of thousands of views touting baseless claims about the virus.

“If TikTok is going to have a policy like this, it’s important that they enforce it,” Media Matters researcher Alex Kaplan told The Hill. 

The platforms are still in the early stages of grappling with a fast-moving situation, and misinformation was continuing to break through the deluge on Friday evening. 

The first and third most popular posts on Facebook-owned Instagram related to the coronavirus in the last week, according to social media metric tracker Crowdtangle, include photos and videos of animals and of people eating “bat soup,” putting the blame for the disease on Chinese people with debunked claims.

NBC News first reported on the posts, which have been viewed nearly 60 million times combined.

While the top posts directly mentioning coronavirus on Facebook come from reputable news sources, various posts with dog whistles and conspiracy theories — like “bat soup” or Chinese people not practicing proper hygiene — have been shared thousands of times.

“This coronavirus is making me wonder if I should serve my annual Super Bowl bat soup this year,” tweeted right-wing commentator Ann Coulter to an audience of 2.2 million followers. 

The CDC has only confirmed six cases in the U.S. so far, but as the coronavirus spreads, experts anticipate the misinformation will grow and take on unexpected forms. 

Lawmakers said they are watching how the platforms handle the crisis.

“Much like this virus, misinformation, willful or benign in nature, will continue to spread until measures are taken to limit exposure and treat symptoms,” Dingell wrote on Friday. “I urge you to take serious action in addressing this issue and appreciate your attention to this matter.” 

Tags Ann Coulter Coronavirus Debbie Dingell
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