For all of their flaws and pockets of misinformation, these are valuable communication channels and they offer a significant opportunity for authoritative sources to reach the public where they are. The challenge for the platforms is in enabling that, and enabling those community social support functions, while protecting the communities themselves from being overrun with nonsense and grift. They have to elevate authoritative content and voices while still allowing people to discuss their experiences.
Until the 2019 Brooklyn and Samoa measles outbreaks, tech companies had not really accepted the responsibility to surface authoritative health information and down-rank misinformation. Researchers—including me—had spent years suggesting that platforms needed to address quack-cure and anti-vaxxer groups. Health conspiracies began to fall under “fake news” fact-checking programs beginning in 2017, but the viral false content from organic posts on Facebook groups and pages was still largely treated as a free-expression issue. Since the harms were rarely immediate, the platforms didn’t get involved; the downstream impact on individual or public health wasn’t fully considered. One notable exception to this laissez-faire approach was Google search, which in 2013 had instituted a policy called “Your Money or Your Life,” acknowledging that search results for topics that could have a significant personal impact should be subject to a higher standard of care and not determined solely by popularity or other gameable metrics.
But as preventable measles cases spread in Brooklyn last year, media and elected officials alike began to look at the role that social platform information was playing in vaccine hesitancy and the resultant outbreaks of disease. They found a complex picture: Social dynamics played a role, though these included both online and offline factors. Rep. Adam Schiff wrote letters asking YouTube, Facebook, and Amazon to account for the steps they were taking to ensure that conspiracies spread on the platform weren’t negatively affecting public health writ large.* The companies released new policies: The inaccurate content could remain on the platform, but the platforms would no longer serve it in ads, or recommend groups or pages that shared it in the recommendation engine. False health information was down-ranked and deprecated.
Those policies have recently been applied to the coronavirus as well. Any time a user includes the word coronavirus in a search, Twitter displays a banner linking to the CDC; Pinterest, which limits results for queries for which it can’t ensure scientifically reputable results, is only returning prominent health organization content; YouTube is returning results from authoritative sources and actively working to delete cure-hoax content. Reddit is quarantining conspiratorial communities. And on Facebook, which struggles with peer-to-peer misinformation in highly conspiratorial communities, Mark Zuckerberg has put up a number of posts—and detailed Facebook’s evolution in recognizing the responsibility that platforms bear in addressing health misinformation.
These measures are a marked improvement over outbreaks past, but grift and misinformation are still proliferating—and there are fewer human moderators to do the work because companies have closed their offices, leaving us even more dependent on A.I. The challenge of managing misinformation in a crisis in general is compounded by the sheer speed and scale of this disease’s spread. Every country is, or is likely to be, affected by the coronavirus. The crisis of authority in certain countries is compounding the problem. In the U.S., for example, the coronavirus is already politicized—depending on which media environment you trust, you’re seeing very different things. Amplifying authoritative sources leads to allegations of censoring the other side’s point of view (even if it’s factually inaccurate and not in any way backed by sound science).
Social media platforms are under pressure to ensure that sensationalism and misinformation on their platforms don’t exacerbate an epidemic—as they should be. They are the gatekeepers of good information during this crisis. The problem is that much like the disease, misinformation spreads wherever people congregate. It’s on groups, on pages, in subreddits, and in Discord servers. But it’s also in iMessage and texts, which are being translated and forwarded in this game of digital telephone. It’s spreading over email, which has seen a remarkable return of the kind of chain-letter forwards that used to go viral in the late 1990s. The people who share this wrong information are doing so because they have good intentions.
They want to warn their communities and friends. They want to share the latest news and stories. And so, it falls to each of us to thoroughly check anything we come across before spreading it. Think of it like washing your hands—do it to protect yourself, and others.
Correction, March 20, 2020: This article originally misstated that Twitter was one of the tech companies that received letters from Rep. Adam Schiff about health misinformation on their platforms. Twitter did not receive a letter.