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Social media is rife with misinformation on coronavirus, here's what platforms are doing to fight it

Social media applications are the main reason for misinformation, helping to spread myths rather than cross-checking for facts
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

During the coronavirus pandemic, people are relying heavily on social media to keep themselves updated. The power that is given to everyone — being able to spread any kind of information or opinions — comes with baggage.

The spread of fake news and misinformation has been rapid since before the pandemic. Social media applications are the main reason for misinformation, helping to spread myths rather than cross-checking for facts.

 World Health Organisation (WHO) Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, addressed the Munich Security Conference and spoke of his concern on the spread of misinformation. "We're not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic. Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous."

Kate Starbird of Washington State University, who is a leading expert on Crisis Informatics, the study of how information flows in crisis situations, especially over social media, said that crises always generate levels of high uncertainty which in turn breeds anxiety.

This leads people to seek ways of resolving uncertainty and reducing anxiety by seeking information about the threat. They’re doing what humans always do – trying to make sense of a confusing situation, she noted in The Guardian.

There are no in-between gatekeepers to fact check every information before it is put on the platforms, unlike in the pre-social media era, where information was only provided through secured channels by prominent people with their facts checked, giving little space for fake news. 

"We are aware of an increasing number of false information about the COVID-19 outbreak appearing in public discourse, including on social media," European Commission Vice President Věra Jourová, whose portfolio includes the EU's efforts to fight fake news, told Politico.

Coronavirus information, a toxic blend of truths and lies, is running rampant on Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, and Instagram shared through memes, doctored screenshots, forwarded messages, unverified links, and sites. 

With this pandemic at hand, it has become crucial to stop fake news, myths or misinformation to avoid panic among people. What are these companies trying to do to stop it?

Whatsapp has become the center of forwarded messages that have created unwanted panic and chaos among people. Recently, in the midst of lockdown around the world, the most common fake messages going around the world include those on grocery stores closing, banks running out of cash, myths claiming to be facts on how to cure coronavirus or how to avoid it by doing some certain dos and don'ts. 

A journalist sits near signs that instruct social distancing prior to a news briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House on March 18, 2020 in Washington, DC (Getty Images)

Twitter did not want to introduce policies against misinformation, historically describing itself as the "free speech wing of the free-speech party". The company has no policies for flagging or removing false tweets.

Only recently, in the midst of COVID-19, Twitter tied up with the NHS to direct users to legitimate sources when they can search for information on medically-related issues to avoid the search or spread of misinformation.

Facebook became the hub of magic cures or how to prevent coronavirus messages giving rise to misinformation among users. When Facebook users attempt to share them, a message pops up alerting the user that the post includes information that has been deemed false by fact-checkers.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took to Facebook to post that the company is working with National Health ministries and global organizations like the World Health Organization, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and UNICEF to get out timely and accurate information on the virus.

Instagram has given a surge to memes and IGTV messages from people around the world claiming myths as facts to deceive users. Misinformation can scare people into an unwanted situation that be a risk to themselves and others.

Such misinformation, especially about groceries closing down created a massive hoarding situation that resulted in a shortage of items such as toilet papers, sanitizers and canned food among others.

A Chinese woman wears a protective mask as she looks at her phone while sitting in the Sanlitun shopping area on March 10, 2020, in Beijing, China (Getty Images)

"I see misinformation about the coronavirus everywhere. Some people are panicking, and looking to magical cures, and other people are spreading conspiracies," said Austin Chiang, a gastroenterologist at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia to the New York Times.

To avoid the spread of fake news and flagging misinformation, social media companies are trying their best to remove posts that are false. Companies across the tech industry are joining hands to participate in #BuildforCOVID19.

They are working with the World Health Organization and other government organizations to ensure that people get accurate information.

The companies said that they are trying to remove posts that discouraged people from seeking treatment or suggested remedies that could cause physical harm and that it was placing warning labels on posts that were rated false by their fact-checkers.