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Coronavirus vs misinformation: What Google, Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and others are doing

As the coronavirus outbreak continues, we look at the efforts announced by tech companies from Google to Facebook to Apple to combat misinformation around the topic.

Written by Shruti Dhapola | New Delhi | Updated: March 17, 2020 4:58:05 pm
Coronavirus, COVID19 alert, COVID 19 Google, Coronavirus 2019, Coronavirus outbreak, YouTube Coronavirus, Instagram Coronavirus, Google website for COVID 19 Coronavirus has also meant a flood of misinformation online. But here’s how Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, are trying to tackle the problem. (Image created by Gargi Singh)

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to spread across the world, and with cases in India rising to 126, there is a flood of information and misinformation around the pandemic. Earlier today, Microsoft, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Reddit, Twitter and YouTube issued a joint statement on the COVID-19 outbreak, which reads as follows, “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.”

Most of these companies have already announced measures to take on the misinformation around the coronavirus outbreak, given that conspiracy theories and false claims tend to spread very quickly on social media and online. Here’s a look at all the steps that companies have taken so far.

Google and steps for coronavirus outbreak: On Google Search

Back in January, Google had declared an SOS alert for the topic. The SOS alert when activated ensured that people get information on the coronavirus from official sources such as the World Health Organization, rather than random links showing up on top. This was done, when the WHO was declared as a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), and globally the number of cases were yet to rise.

The SOS alert means Google users get direct access to verified safety tips, information, resources & Twitter updates from WHO. For India, the results now show the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare website as one of the top links, along with coronavirus advisory information from WHO right below this.

In the US, Google is also running a “Do the Five” promotional campaign to raise awareness of measures people can take to stop the spread of the disease, which includes washing hands, coughing in elbows, not touching the face, etc. Google says these tips have already been seen by millions in the US within the first 24 hours.

It has also added the coronavirus as a disease on its knowledge panel, which appears on the side of search. The panel gives out the symptoms, who is vulnerable to the disease, the methods for prevention and its notes that currently there is no vaccine. It also lists out the self-care to be taken and the medical treatment needed and what to tell doctors if you suspect that you are infected.

Coronavirus, COVID19 alert, COVID 19 Google, Coronavirus 2019, Coronavirus outbreak, YouTube Coronavirus, Instagram Coronavirus, Google website for COVID 19 Google CEO Sundar Pichai has also announced the steps that the company is taking to tackle misinformation. (Image source: Reuters)

Google combating misinformation

Sundar Pichai in the blog post noted that the company was blocking all ads, which are trying to capitalise on the disease and that they have “blocked tens of thousands of ads over the last six weeks.” Further, Google Play has cracked down on apps which are seeking to capitalise on this, and searching for coronavirus on the Play Store shows no results.

The blog post by Pichai says, “Google Play also prohibits developers from capitalising on sensitive events, and our long-standing content policies strictly prohibit apps that feature medical or health-related content or functionalities that are misleading or potentially harmful.”

Instagram and coronavirus

Instagram is also taking some concrete steps to deal with misinformation around the coronavirus. The company announced that they were removing “harmful misinformation” related to COVID-19. When someone uses a hashtag related to COVID-19, the app will show resources and accounts of WHO, CDC and other local health authorities in the search to ensure authentic information is displayed. It had started blocking hashtags with misinformation around the virus back in January itself, according to reports.

Instagram will also be sending posts that may be misleading to fact-checking partners for review, and ban ads which are exploiting the situation. Further, Instagram will link to information from WHO around the coronavirus and show this at the top of the homefeed.

Coronavirus, COVID19 alert, COVID 19 Google, Coronavirus 2019, Coronavirus outbreak, YouTube Coronavirus, Instagram Coronavirus, Google website for COVID 19 Instagram is promoting official accounts when some searches for Coronavirus or uses a hashtag related to the term.

According to TechCrunch, which first reported this, the Instagram message will read like this, “Help Prevent the Spread of Coronavirus: See the latest information from the World Health Organization so you can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. — Go to who.int”. Instagram’s parent company Facebook is also showing a similar message in the News Feed. This message will appear in countries where the virus has made a significant impact, according to the report.

Instagram also announced that they are rejecting all new Augmented Reality effects or AR effects, which “claim to predict, diagnose, treat, or cure coronavirus.” Further they will not allow “people to search for COVID-19 related AR effects on Instagram unless they were developed in partnership with a recognized health organization.” AR effects can be added to Stories on Instagram.

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Facebook and coronavirus

Facebook is also working to reduce misinformation around the coronavirus. Regarding the spread of misinformation, Facebook had said it would rely on its “global network of third-party fact-checkers” to review the work and debunk the false claims. So technically, the social network itself is still not double-checking the information being posted around this. It has also said they will limit the spread of any information if it is found to be false. “We also send notifications to people who already shared or are trying to share this content to alert them that it’s been fact-checked,” the company said.

Coronavirus, COVID19 alert, COVID 19 Google, Coronavirus 2019, Coronavirus outbreak, YouTube Coronavirus, Instagram Coronavirus, Google website for COVID 19 Facebook has announced several steps to deal with misinformation around COVID-19. (Image source: Bloomberg)

Facebook said it will “remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them.” Any claims that discourage treatment, promote false cures or prevention methods such as drinking bleach, will all be removed.

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Facebook is also banning ads which are designed to create panic or trying to sell a cure to people. The social network has also temporarily banned ads, listings, which were selling medical face masks.

YouTube and coronavirus

YouTube is one place where conspiracy theories tend to spread quickly, but it looks the platform is taking some strict measures to ensure that such videos do not appear on top of the results. If you search for coronavirus in the US in the YouTube search box, it will direct users to videos from “the CDC or other locally relevant public health agencies.” In India, searching for coronavirus on YouTube, shows the Ministry of Health Family Welfare website link right on top, and below it are news videos from mainstream outlets.

The platform has already “taken down thousands of videos related to dangerous or misleading coronavirus information,” according to Pichai. YouTube will also continue to remove videos which “promote medically unproven methods” to prevent contracting the virus.

In a separate blog post, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki notes that they will raise up “authoritative sources in search and recommendations and showing information panels on relevant videos.” They will remove videos which “discourage people from seeking medical treatment or claim harmful substances have health benefits.”

Twitter and coronavirus

Twitter also announced some steps to tackle misinformation around coronavirus. It will increase use of machine learning and automation in order to tackle potentially abusive and manipulative content, though the company also acknowledged that at times this kind of approach could see them make mistakes.

In a blog post, the company notes that “As a result, we will not permanently suspend any accounts based solely on our automated enforcement systems. Instead, we will continue to look for opportunities to build in human review checks where they will be most impactful.”

Coronavirus, COVID19 alert, COVID 19 Google, Coronavirus 2019, Coronavirus outbreak, YouTube Coronavirus, Instagram Coronavirus, Google website for COVID 19 Twitter is also showing official links to WHO on top when one searches for COVID19 on the site.

Twitter is  also setting up a “global content severity triage system” to prioritise potential rule violations that present the biggest risk of harm. The company says it wants to reduce the burden of reporting on other users. It has also set up a dedicated COVID-19 Event, which has the latest facts right at the top of the timeline. When you search for #COVID19 on Twitter, the top result says ‘Know the Facts’ and links to the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and the WHO displayed prominently.

Apple and coronavirus

While Apple has reopened its retail stores in China, it has announced the closure of all stores outside of Greater China till March 27. Apple has also added a new COVID-19 section in its Apple News to give users verified news reports. The WWDC conference will now be an online only event.

More importantly, Apple has set restrictions for apps around the COVID-19 and won’t allow unauthorised apps on the topic. It is only accepting apps from recognised entities around this topic. It will be checking apps to ensure that the data quoted around COVID-19 is from reputable sources. Any entertainment or game apps with COVID-19 as their theme will not be allowed on the App Store, according to the note.

The note posted on Apple’s developer website says the developers for these apps have to be from “recognized entities such as government organizations, health-focused NGOs, companies deeply credentialed in health issues, and medical or educational institutions.” It has also banned any entertainment or game apps with COVID-19 as their theme.

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