The world is struggling to contain the flow of fake news surrounding covid-19, even as it pushes back against the pandemic with lockdowns and other emergency measures.
The Vaccine Confidence Project (VCP) found 240 million digital and social media messages globally on Sars-Cov-2, at an average of 3.08 million daily messages, between 1 January and mid-March, its director Heidi J. Larson wrote in Nature. VCP is an interdisciplinary research group at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Many of these messages could be false or misleading.
Fake social media posts can be put into five categories, said Rakesh Dubbudu, founder of Factly, an Indian fact-checking website certified by the International Fact Checking Network (IFCN). These include content about causes, symptoms, and cures, which are dominant in India, spread of the virus, government documents and misrepresentation of comments, photos and videos of politicians, and conspiracy theories with communal angles.
Misleading posts about the virus began appearing in December 2019, though initially the posts were centered around China, said Dubbudu. Posts relating to India began appearing in February.
Facebook says it took down 40 million posts globally related to covid-19 in March. The social network puts warning labels on posts found to be false. “Our automated systems have challenged more than 3.4 million accounts targeting manipulative discussions around covid-19," Twitter said on 23 April. Twitter said it has broadened its “definition of harm" to tackle fake news.
TikTok is the “biggest culprit" in distributing fake news, said Saurabh Shukla, founder and editor-in-chief of NewsMobile, one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners.
However, according to a blog post by TikTok, covid-related hashtags on the platform appear with a public service announcement about its guidelines. TikTok moderators have been given new, stricter guidelines, said a TikTok moderator.
ShareChat hosts a lot of fake news in local languages, said Dubbudu.
“Misinformation can be at places you can’t even imagine," said a fact checker from an IFCN approved website in India. Initially, there were posts such as those recommending hot water baths to prevent infection, he said. Gradually, more dangerous content surfaced, such as the fake news of China bombing its own citizens. Now, there are videos of people faking infection and misleading miracle cures and remedies.
“It’s quite difficult for us to debunk those videos, because they’re coming from the remotest parts, such as a village in Bihar," the fact-checker said.
Fact-checkers look at the videos frame-by-frame for identifiable elements. “You might see a hoarding, a milestone or something else that lets you identify where the video is coming from. We then contact the police or local authorities to ascertain the validity of the information in the video," the fact-checker mentioned above said. Fake posts are also identified through user reports and tip-offs, or through their tie-ups with the platforms.
Incorrect and misleading posts come from both within the country and abroad, said Shukla. “There has been a huge jump in this," he said. Some posts have morphed images claiming to be from the World Health Organization (WHO).
Most fact-checkers agree that misinformation isn’t coming from social media posts alone. NewsMobile has busted articles published by national news organizations.
The impact could be grave in many cases. There have been misleading articles and posts about hospitals being sealed because of coronavirus cases, which could deter people from going to that hospital even when they are really in need, said Shukla.