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5th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

Tech giants must stop Covid-19 'infodemic', say doctors

  • Described as an "infodemic" by the World Health Organization (WHO), the conspiracies range from linking the pandemic to immigrants to claims the virus is spread by 5G network towers (Photo: Stock Catalog)

Doctors around the world - including in Europe - have demanded social media tech giants step up their fight against disinformation, amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

In an open letter addressed to Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the global health experts say they continue to face a viral misinformation on social media threatening lives around the world.

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"Today we are calling on the tech giants to take immediate systemic action to stem the flow of health misinformation, and the public health crisis it has triggered," says the letter published Thursday (7 May) and signed by over 100 doctors and nurses.

They note false claims and conspiracies continue to flourish on platforms like Facebook - pointing out that the promotion of bogus cures scares people off vaccines and effective treatments.

"It's us who treat the toddlers hospitalised for measles, a completely avoidable disease once eliminated in countries like the US but now on the rise largely thanks to anti-vaxxer propaganda," they note.

More efforts to correct the record on health misinformation and detox the algorithms that decide what people see figure among their two most pressing demands.

Forms of vaccine misinformation which do not come under Facebook's policies on imminent violence or physical harm are dropped down in its News Feed.

The company then displays articles in an effort to set the record straight and removes the bogus remedies from search results and group recommendations.

But Avaaz, a global civic organisation, in a recent study said millions of Facebook users were being exposed to coronavirus misinformation, without any warning from the platform.

Facebook has since announced it would retroactively issue alerts on coronavirus disinformation.

The letter also follows moves to grant more powers to the European Union to audit the tech giants as the European Commission preps work on its digital platform regulation known as the Digital Services Act.

Twitter late last month won some praise from European Commission vice-president Vera Jourova for allowing researchers and software developers access to a real-time data stream of tens of millions of daily public tweets about Covid-19.

But the pandemic has also only further exposed the daily onslaught of misinformation and disinformation, amid increasing pressure by activists for the tech giants to tweak their algorithms that amplify the messages to select audiences.

Described as an "infodemic" by the World Health Organization (WHO), the conspiracies range from linking the pandemic to immigrants to claims the virus is spread by 5G network towers.

For its part, Facebook says it has removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of harmful Covid-19 misinformation and applied warning labels from independent fact-checkers to 40 million posts in the month of March alone.

"We're also distributing authoritative health information across our apps: so far we've directed over two billion people to resources from health authorities through our COVID-19 Information Center — with over 350 million people clicking through to learn more," a Facebook company spokesperson told this website.

Facebook to retroactively alert users of bogus content

US social media giant Facebook announced new measures to tackle the 'infodemic' triggered by bogus content on the coronavirus. The move coincides with a study by activists showing how Facebook had so far failed to curtail virus-related disinformation.

Online platforms need regulating, Jourova warns

The EU commission vice-president pledged to tackle disinformation by regulating platforms and cleaning up online political advertising rules. She also pointed to Russia and China as wanting to undermine European democracy.

EU Commission slammed for Covid-19 'mid-threat' ranking

The European Commission classified on Wednesday the coronavirus as a "mid-level" threat to workers, drawing criticism from socialist lawmakers and trade unions because the decision allows businesses to apply less stringent safety measures in the workplace.

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