Why misinformation is a clear and present danger during the coronavirus outbreak
A screengrab of a tweet from Singapore-based broadcaster Channel NewsAsia (CNA), which shows it has been retweeted 3,335 times and liked 305 times on Twitter, announces that schools in Singapore have been shut because of the 2019 coronavirus outbreak.
This might have been believable because the ongoing crisis has hit a high level of concern globally, and has now infected 40,553 people and claimed the lives of 910 people across 28 territories at the time of writing.
However, the screengrab, which was circulated on WhatsApp, is fake news, according to CNA, as it was repurposed from another tweet.
This screengrab is just one of the many misinformation, rumors and conspiracies about the outbreak that have emerged as the coronavirus continues its spread across the world, forcing the likes of Facebook, Google and Twitter to introduce measures to combat bad actors.
Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, has announced in a blog post it is focused on three areas when tackling the issue. It previously came under fire for not doing enough during the Christchurch terror attacks and seeing WhatsApp become a major channel for false reporting and hate speech that has factored into mob violence and murders in India.
Facebook's three areas of focus are removing content with claims and conspiracy theories that have been debunked by the World Health Organization (WHO) or other credible health experts, providing information from partners through messages on top of the News Feed on Facebook and empowering partners with tools.
The social media giant has also set a forward limit on WhatsApp messages and banned spam accounts to prevent abuse and to educate users on misinformation by creating a label that highlights when a user receives a message that has been forwarded to them. It has also introduced a new privacy setting and invite system to help users decide who can add them to groups.
It is also working with the Singapore government to use the WhatsApp Business API on an emergency basis to respond with health information to people that have opted in to receive updates about the developing coronavirus situation.
Google meanwhile, launched an SOS Alert to make resources about coronavirus easily accessible to people affected by or looking to learn more about the outbreak. This alert provides direct access to news, safety tips, information and resources from the WHO website, and the latest updates from WHO on Twitter.
“As the coronavirus outbreak evolves, we are committed to providing timely and helpful information to people around the world, by working in close partnership with the World Health Organization,” a Google spokesperson tells The Drum.
“This alert provides direct access to news, safety tips, information and resources from the WHO website, and the latest updates from WHO on Twitter. Meanwhile, on YouTube, we launched an informational panel using WHO data in most countries affected by the outbreak to help combat misinformation. We’ll be pointing to this article relaying advice to the public about prevention and protection against the virus."
Twitter, which has already seen more than 15 million tweets about the coronavirus in four weeks, recently adjusted its search prompt to ensure authoritative health sources appear upfront as part of their efforts to expand its #KnowTheFacts initiative.
This means that when an individual searches a hashtag or a keyword, they are immediately met with authoritative health info from the right sources up top.
According to the company, #KnowTheFacts campaign is currently running in 15 locations, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia, and "will continue to expand as the need arises.”
TikTok, which has also been accused of spreading fake news, declined to comment about the measures it is taking to stop the spread of misinformation when reached by The Drum.
While the major social networks have been proactive in their response to avoid criticism for allowing the spread of misinformation, some observers like Darren Woolley, the founder and global chief executive of TrinityP3, believe they are still avoiding the same responsibilities and not held accountable for the content they publish, unlike traditional media.
He argues that social networks really struggle with their role as media platforms and often continue to argue they are not media platforms, but technology platforms.
However, they provide crowdsourced content, some of it sensationalist or fake, which drives audience engagement, which they commercialise like a media outlet, with the vast majority of their revenue coming from paid advertising that they offer.
“The public is rightly and genuinely concerned about the threat posed by the coronavirus epidemic and is hungry for information. It is just a pity that the vast majority now rely on the tech platforms for that information,” he tells The Drum.
“Twitter has famously banned political advertising on its platform in the lead up to the 2020 USA election. But what about the fake news tweets that still appear? Facebook has removed or closed a few high profile anti-vaxer pages on its platform in the face of the rising child-death rates due to the low level of vaccinations. But largely it is a drop in the ocean compared to the huge amount of fake news content filling their platform from which they directly profit.”
He adds: “The argument of the platforms is that it is too hard and would constitute censorship if they started a wide-scale review and removal of fake news. At the same time, they are happy to accept billions of dollars in advertising revenue to commercialize on the attention of the people drawn to their platform by the content. So basically they want their cake and eat it too.”
Like social networks, publishers are also facing the threat of misinformation.
This is not helped by the fact that some media organizations that have built their business models on actively spreading and promoting inflammatory, hateful and bigoted ideology, as journalists like Alex McKinnon, the morning editor at Schwartz Media have previously told The Drum.
He also claims that there were many media companies with deeply flawed practices regarding the reporting of terror events, Islamophobia and right-wing extremism.
Some examples include articles and coverage often riddled with basic errors, failure to check or flag the backgrounds of the right-wing figures given exposure, or actively perpetuating inaccurate and harmful misconceptions about Muslim people and non-white people more broadly.
“All media platforms are helping to account to a certain extent by law and ethics for the content they publish already,” says Woolley. “This does not apply to the digital social media platforms because to date legislation has lagged the technology and the tech player has been swift to ensure that politicians do not quell their rivers of gold by doing so.”
“But perhaps they have been allowed to become too big and powerful for the government to control?”
CNN, which United States President Donald Trump habitually accuses of being a fake news outlet without evidence, believes the biggest change in the way its newsroom operates over the past decade has been the increased pressure on verification.
In a breaking news environment, the speed and scale at which information circulates have increased dramatically, Ellana Lee, senior vice president, managing editor for Asia Pacific and global head of features content at CNN International tells The Drum.
That is why the network making sure it constantly checking on the flood of material that often arrives at the outset of a story, is critical.
“As a story evolves, these principles remain, even if the pace often slows. In our newsrooms, we use a digital tool that helps us to search and sift through social media to focus on reliable sources, and in addition to any international reporters we deploy to a story,” she explains.
“We draw on our international bureaus and our network of more than 1,100 affiliates, as well as a central fact-checking team known as The Row, to help us make sure what we air or publish is accurate. Speed is important, but accuracy is paramount; a key mantra in our newsroom is that it is better to be right than first.”
Lee believes CNN’s responsibility for any story is the same now as it has always been because she feels audiences turn to the network in huge numbers, as they want news and information they can trust. Context, measured analysis from credible experts, and clear, factual reporting are central to that, she adds.
She points to CNN’s coverage of the coronavirus outbreak, for example, where the video “Fear and anxiety in the epicentre of Wuhan coronavirus outbreak” has racked up over 200 million video views and 44 million engagements on Facebook and is CNN’s biggest video on Facebook ever.
“Global audiences are turning to us around this story. Coverage of the coronavirus outbreak reached 53 million unique global visitors and has averaged 5.1 million daily unique visitors across CNN Digital since January 21,” adds Lee.
Over at News Corp-owned The Wall Street Journal (WSJ), Suzi Watford, the executive vice president and chief marketing officer tells The Drum that it is paramount to give people the facts they need in an age of misinformation at times like these where there is an increase of anxiety and confusion,
She stresses that WSJ sets the standard for rigorous, fair, and trustworthy journalism, which she says has been the newspaper’s hallmark for over a century by applying high standards to all its reporting, including its coverage of the coronavirus.
This is because WSJ's goal is to ensure its readers that they are receiving the most pertinent and deeply sourced reporting on the latest developments of the outbreak, she explains.
"For us, it’s about ensuring our journalism is available to as many people as possible, through as many channels as possible. We want to ensure readers are getting the facts they need and are truly understanding the scale of the developing situation, the impact it will have on communities across China and the unforeseen effects on the global economy. It’s important that our readers are gaining true insight and perspective into this story, and it is our duty to deliver that information," she adds.
At the end of the day, the social networks should be held to the same account as regular media in regards to defamation, slander, misleading and deceptive and acting against the public good, says Woolley.
He explains if this means they need to invest more in checking and validating the content on their platform, perhaps an increase in advertising fees will help pay for this and in the process eliminate the advertising price advantage they currently enjoy.
“But would that not be better than having the gunman in Christchurch, New Zealand being able to live-stream his sadistic massacre, live to the world? Or having someone cause large scale panic in downtown Singapore with fake news of a coronavirus outbreak?” he asks.
“Likewise, they should help to account in making sure they provide information that is in the public interest and not simply enabling the mischievous and the misinformed.”
However, governments are not depending on social networks and publishers to react quickly to misinformation.
Singapore has announced that Facebook, Twitter, Google, Baidu and HardwareZone will no longer be exempted from general correction directions (GCD) under the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA).
That means a general correction direction can be issued to a media outlet, social networking platform, search engine or other Internet service providers. When Internet services are given a GCD, they are required to disseminate a correction notice in Singapore using their service to all their end‑users or users specified by the direction.
For example, the POFMA Office issued a targeted correction direction to Facebook over two posts on the platform that claimed that Woodlands MRT station was closed due to the Wuhan coronavirus.
It also issued a correction direction to SPH Magazines over a post on its HardwareZone Forum, which claimed that a person had died in Singapore from the Wuhan virus.
The last outbreak of the virus on this scale was SARS and it has yet to emerge whether the impact of social media is a help or hindrance in comparison to the fear that spread globally more than 17 years ago.
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