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Internet giants fight spread of Covid-19 untruths

San Francisco

AS THE new coronavirus spreads globally, the online battle to keep misinformation about the disease is also stepping up.

Google, Facebook and other platforms are struggling to keep ahead of scammers, trolls and others with ill intent who routinely use major tragedies or disasters as opportunities to swindle or manipulate people.

"The public concern about coronavirus is being used as a vehicle to get people to transmit misinformation and disinformation," said University of Washington biology professor Carl Bergstrom.

Internet companies took part in a meeting with the World Health Organisation (WHO) last week at Facebook offices in Silicon Valley to discuss tactics such as promoting reliable information and fact-checking dubious claims about the coronavirus, referred to as Covid-19.

"(We must) combat the spread of rumours and misinformation," WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told AFP recently.

"To that end, we have worked with Google to make sure people searching for information about the coronavirus see WHO information at the top of their search results."

Google search ranks authoritative sources higher when people are seeking information on health, and labels results or news stories that have been fact-checked.

Dr Ghebreyesus said that social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Tencent and TikTok have also taken steps to limit spread of misinformation about the novel coronavirus.

Facebook said in a recent online post that it is focusing on claims which, if relied on, could increase the likelihood of someone getting sick or not getting proper treatment.

"This includes claims related to false cures or prevention methods - like drinking bleach cures the coronavirus - or claims that create confusion about health resources that are available," Facebook head of health Kang-Xing Jin said in the post.

"We will also block or restrict hashtags used to spread misinformation on Instagram, and are conducting proactive sweeps to find and remove as much of this content as we can."

Prof Bergstrom said some virus misinformation comes from "people trying to sell snake-oil products" such as bogus cures or treatments, while others use attention-grabbing deceptions to drive online traffic that yields money from advertising.

Misinformation is also spread by "actors" out to fuel distrust for the establishment in China or foment societal instability overall, he said.

"There's appetite for up-to-date, real-time information," said Jevin West, co-author of a book on misinformation with Professor Bergstrom.

"These actors can take advantage of that; things with crazier scenarios are more likely to be clicked on than the report from that doctor at WHO trying to calm the fears."

Facebook said that when users seek information related to the virus, the social network will show "educational pop-up" boxes with information considered credible.

Facebook is also giving free advertising credits to organisations running Covid-19 education campaigns.

Social media giants have also beefed up ranks of fact-checkers, hiring outside parties such as AFP News Wire, to sort truth from fiction, even if there are questions on their effectiveness.

A recent study published in the journal Science Advances suggested fact-checking did little to stem the tide of misinformation about other epidemics such as Zika, Ebola and yellow fever.

The researchers said that "current approaches to combating misinformation and conspiracy theories about disease epidemics and outbreaks may be ineffective or even counterproductive", and could even cause "collateral" damage by undermining trust in fact-based disease information. AFP