Tech Giants Change Course on Information Impartiality During Pandemic
Jacob Bourne posted on March 26, 2020 |
Companies take steps to tackle COVID-19 fraud and misinformation.

Social media companies have upended the way that information is spread over the past two decades. People of all backgrounds can access unprecedented amounts of information contained within platforms such as Facebook. This has blurred the lines of who gets treated as an expert; an adolescent with a laptop can potentially disseminate information to a global audience and scammers can use social media sites to exploit people’s fears for nefarious purposes. The present COVID-19 pandemic has raised the stakes on the impact of this tech-enabled information spread, placing big tech companies in the crosshairs.

Tech companies have often been hesitant to employ algorithms to control the spread of factually incorrect information and potentially harmful content on their platforms. Concerns about infringing on freedom of speech is a factor, however putting limits on content could also restrain profit margins. The issue has become more thorny when misinformation comes from authoritative sources such as politicians. Yet on March 16, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube issued a joint statement:

“We are working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts. We’re helping millions of people stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world. We invite other companies to join us as we work to keep our communities healthy and safe.”

With the COVID-19 disease spreading dangerously through several countries, further harm could be inflicted if unscrupulous users have free reign to spread misinformation about the virus, attempt to profit off of fraudulent treatments, or if malicious groups try to weaponize the disease against others. Tech companies are now dealing with these threats in multiple ways including dedicating part of their sites to sharing resources related to the pandemic. For example, Facebook created a Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information Center as a place to get the latest news and information from health authorities. The company also launched a $1 million grant program to partner with Poynter’s International Fact-Checking Network to support fact-checkers working on COVID-19 content.

“The fact-checking community has been working very hard, day and night, since January to point out falsehoods about the new coronavirus. Social media platforms have a responsibility to combat this type of misinformation, it is great to see that Facebook is willing to support the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance,” said Cristina Tardáguila, the IFCN's Associate Director and the coordinator of the COVID-19 collaborative project.

Google has a similar COVID-19 Information & Resources center. Emily Moxley, Google’s Product Management Director, Search recently wrote, “Since the beginning of the year, search interest in COVID-19 has continued to climb around the world. Right now the disease is the largest topic people are looking for globally, surpassing even some of the most common and consistent queries we see in Search.” The company is tweaking its search engine’s capabilities to make it easier to access authoritative information on COVID-19.

Twitter has stated it will increase the use of machine learning and automation to take action on “potentially abuse and manipulative content,” which could include deleting offending tweets. The company is also harnessing its existing blue-check verification system to make sure that experts with agencies like the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control have verified Twitter accounts.

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