© 2023 WFSU Public Media
WFSU News · Tallahassee · Panama City · Thomasville
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Tech Companies Aim To Stop COVID-19 Disinformation


Now, the emergency we face is a medical crisis, an economic crisis and a crisis of information. That is how the World Health Organization's Director-General Tedros Adhanom put it recently.


TEDROS ADHANOM: Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus and is just as dangerous.

INSKEEP: So how is Big Tech fighting that? NPR's Tim Mak has more.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: The coronavirus is the first epidemic that has received this much attention in the social media age.

JOHN GREGORY: It's definitely unprecedented. I've never seen something like this that the medical and scientific communities have had to address in real time.

MAK: John Gregory is the deputy editor of health at NewsGuard, which reviews news platforms for their credibility and trustworthiness. He says there are three big buckets of coronavirus misinformation circulating right now.

GREGORY: No. 1, conspiracies about the origins of the virus; two, bad health cures, either ineffective or both ineffective and harmful. And three, minimizing the outbreak, saying it's not as big of a deal as the media is making it out to be.

MAK: Big tech firms have been grappling for years with foreign coordinated disinformation campaigns, like the one launched by Russia to interfere with the 2016 election. But misinformation about the coronavirus seems to be organic and domestic. In fact, much of it appears to be spread by Americans interested in profit, Gregory said.

GREGORY: Some are promoting their own phony health cures for the coronavirus. Other people are selling other, like, survivalist kind of supplies and using this news as a way to, essentially, scare people into thinking they need all of that. They need buckets of food supplies or big supplies of masks.

MAK: Tech companies are trying to elevate trusted sources of information while removing false information on a rolling basis. When users search for coronavirus, Facebook and Twitter have put a link to the Centers for Disease Control as the first result. Google is doing the same with information from the World Health Organization available in more than 20 languages. YouTube says it is removing videos promoting dangerous and false cures. And to crackdown on the scaremongering for profit motivation, Facebook is limiting the way that hand sanitizer can be advertised, as well as temporarily banning ads for medical masks.

Lindsay Gorman is the fellow for emerging technologies at the Alliance For Securing Democracy. She's been a critic of how social media companies have dealt with political disinformation but is now praising tech companies for proactive steps like these.

LINDSAY GORMAN: I think this is really a serious response. And it shows what aggressively confronting a disinformation challenge actually looks like and what our big tech platforms can do when there is a strong will to act.

MAK: Big tech firms have not wanted to be arbiters of political truth. But with the coronavirus, both the dangers and the truth are much clearer, said Gorman.

GORMAN: The platforms' policies all talk about the threat of serious harm to the public as being sort of of a higher order than fact-checking around the political context. I think it's a clear call for them in many cases, and they don't have to get into this role of playing editor.

MAK: In the meantime, disinformation experts tell the public to remain skeptical of information online and diversify their news sources to minimize the threat of false information.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.