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How Effective Is Social Media At Stopping Coronavirus Misinformation?

Social media companies have been more proactive at stopping health-related misinformation than other kinds. But it's still easy to find.
Posted at 5:25 PM, Feb 19, 2020

98% of Coronavirus cases are in mainland China, but news, speculation and misinformation about the virus has spread all over the world. Twitter officials said during January alone, they saw 15 million tweets on the topic. Platforms have stepped up efforts to monitor topical content and slow down misinformation, but it's still easy to find bad content. 

The World Health Organization says unlike the global discourse around Zika or SARS, Coronavirus has come with an "infodemic" — a plethora of widely distributed information that's only sometimes accurate or robust. It isn't just the 24/7 news cycle — there's also near-non-stop content coming from and feeding into Chinese and American social media spheres. Coronavirus content there tends to perform well, even if it's not health-related — some influencers have even been accused of exploiting the coronavirus hashtag.

"Realize that there are lots of folks out there spreading misinformation — sometimes accidentally, but sometimes for personal gain, for web traffic and sometimes for more nefarious reasons," said Peter Adams, the senior vice president of education for the News Literacy Project. "And in this case, you have a kind of perfect storm of fear combined with very limited information or imperfect information."

Social media companies have teamed up with certified health organizations to address misinformation. Searching for coronavirus on Facebook, Twitter, Google or Instagram will direct users straight to information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or from the World Health Organization. Some companies are going well beyond their usual takedown strategies, too. Facebook began outright deleting posts with false claims to keep them from showing up in private Coronavirus discussion groups, and Instagram took down hashtags that promoted misinformation.

Still, there's so much content, moving so fast, that some of it slips through the cracks. MIT researchers found false information on Twitter spreads substantially faster and farther than real stories, because real people retweet bad info. Some groups on Facebook repost bad information, even when it's been fact-checked. On one false treatment Facebook fan page with 41,000 followers, a group member reposted misinformation that human fact-checkers had labeled false, and page admins cast doubt on the accuracy of the fact-checking.