Coronavirus Conspiracies and Misinformation: What Social Media Companies Are Doing About It

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Social media platforms struggle struggle to contain misinformation about COVID-19. The World Health Organization has dubbed the situation a global “infodemic.”  (iStock)

Ideas we might normally dismiss out of hand, like how Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates cooked up COVID-19 or that garlic can cure the disease, can seem more credible during times of crisis or when we're feeling unsure about information coming from experts and political authorities.

That is why social media platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter are plowing ahead with efforts to emphasize real news and de-emphasize fake news surrounding the coronavirus as the pandemic intensifies. Is it working? Kind of.

They've been at it since January, in coordination with agencies like the World Health Organization, which declared the crisis a pandemic on Wednesday. But during public health emergencies, fear and cynicism have a way of amplifying fake news on the internet.

For instance, if you search for the word coronavirus on Facebook, you'll see evidence of a new policy CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced last week. "A search for coronavirus on Facebook will surface a pop-up that directs you to the World Health Organization or your local health authority for the latest information," the company wrote. "If you're in a country where the WHO has reported person-to-person transmission, you'll also see it in your News Feed."

Facebook also said it is blocking content that could cause people harm, such as claims that discourage seeking treatment or taking appropriate precautions against the coronavirus. Posts and videos that shared conspiracy theories were clearly marked as false, once they had been reviewed by fact-checkers.


A similar situation is playing out on Twitter, where a simple search should also pull up information from credible sources. "In addition, we’re halting any auto-suggest results that are likely to direct individuals to non-credible content on Twitter," the company wrote. "This is an expansion of our #KnowTheFacts prompt, which we specifically put in place for the public to find clear, credible information on immunization and vaccination health."

Twitter wants to go even farther by clearly labeling misinformation, according to rules announced in February by Del Harvey, Twitter’s vice president of trust and safety.

"Our new rule: You may not deceptively share synthetic or manipulated media that are likely to cause harm," she wrote. "In addition, we may label Tweets containing synthetic and manipulated media to help people understand their authenticity and to provide context."

"A critical part of this change was developing this with input from the public, civil society groups, and academic experts," Harvey's wrote on Twitter. "We received 6,500+ responses on our approach, and will continue to make changes like this openly and in consultation with people around the world."

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Why Misinformation Works

Whether you're confronting hucksters selling silver as a cure for COVID-19 or hungry retailers trying to sell you overpriced face masks, your brain is partly to blame for why you feel compulsively led to click, comment and share — even if, on some level, you know the information is wrong or distorted.

"One of the biases in our brain is novelty bias," said Subbu Vincent, director of the Journalism and Media Ethics program at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. "We’re susceptible to the latest novel-sounding development and are drawn toward it."

He added, "Conspiracy theories exploit knowledge gaps in our minds between the world our brain sees and our fears. When we try to fill gaps quickly and simplistically, we can fall prey."

Complex explanations, Vincent said, require cognitive effort, and the heavy lift can seem less appealing than the "easy" answer.

He added, though, that it's the same social media platforms that have trained us to respond quickly (and potentially irrationally) to novel information.

And don't be alarmed by the screenshot below. This is what you should see if YouTube is successfully shutting down videos with misinformation in them.

If YouTube's content filters are working, you should see something like this when you click on misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic.
If YouTube's content filters are working, you should see something like this when you click on misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The Dangers of Engaging

There's been a fair amount of news coverage about retailers like Amazon and eBay trying to cut down on price-gouging. But that's only one form of profiteering during this pandemic.

In some cases, social media and phishing emails have led people to websites that promise information, a cure, or survival goods like face masks, and then proceed to steal credit card information and other personal details.

The cybersecurity firm Check Point reported that coronavirus-themed domains are 50% more likely to be malicious than other domains. "Our Global Threat Index for January 2020 shows that cyber criminals are exploiting interest in the global epidemic to spread malicious activity, with several spam campaigns related to the virus’s name," the company wrote on its blog.

Sophos, another cybersecurity company, found an uptick in so-called spear-phishing messages targeting people in Italy, where coronavirus infections have surged in recent weeks. Those messages, with the subject line “coronavirus: informazioni importanti su precauzioni,” include a link to a Microsoft Word document that claims to list cures for the virus. When downloaded, it installs malicious malware on people’s computers.

Most experts agree that in general, you should carefully consider the source of any information. If it's not credible, take a moment to question the claim, and beware of clicking through.

Sophos' blog post concluded, "As with most viruses – digital or biological – this particular contagion can be prevented through good hygiene."