Many major tech platforms have gone beyond moderating coronavirus content to actively push messages from health professionals.
Instagram Chief Executive Adam Mosseri said Tuesday that the Facebook-owned service was being especially careful with recommendations, trying to vet accounts and posts before suggesting them to users. And he said it would take a hard line on bad medical advice.
Part of Instagram’s push on the coronavirus has been to create a “sticker” with the phrase “Stay Home.” People who post to their Instagram stories with the sticker may have their posts picked up and distributed widely, encouraging others to take up social distancing.
“Any misinformation related to COVID-19 that creates risk of real-world harm — we’ve seen things like ‘drink bleach if you’re feeling any of the symptoms’ as, like, a dangerous thing to say, a dangerous piece of information about coronavirus — we will take off Instagram, whether or not it’s from a politician, no matter who it’s from,” Mosseri said during a live chat.
Facebook has a coronavirus “information center” with tips on subjects like hand-washing, and a search on the app for the name of the virus turns up posts from sources such as Johns Hopkins University, the World Health Organization and the American Medical Association.
Zuckerberg himself has posted frequently on the subject, even hosting a senior U.S. health official, Dr. Anthony Fauci, for a live video discussion.
Twitter has laid out sweeping policy changes related to the coronavirus. Last week, the company said it was broadening its definition of harm to cover 11 categories of tweets that it will ask users to remove, from denying health authority recommendations to describing ineffective treatments.
“We recognize that people are increasingly coming to Twitter to find credible and authoritative information about the pandemic and we take that responsibility very seriously,” Twitter said in a statement Tuesday.
Twitter’s moves drew applause from comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, a harsh critic of tech companies, who thanked Twitter “for putting facts and science ahead of misinformation and profit.”
These efforts, however, have their limits.
Misinformation is still spreading far and wide about the coronavirus, including through messaging apps such as WhatsApp and iMessage. Snopes, the fact-checking organization, said Monday that it is overwhelmed by coronavirus misinformation.
“In moments where there’s a lot of uncertainty, we will gravitate towards any information that has a unique or novel take on the problem. People share it because they aren’t seeing it in other places,” said Joan Donovan, research director of Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.
Donovan, who researches disinformation campaigns, said the pandemic shows the value of labels on social media posts. Reddit, which has a thriving message board on the coronavirus, allows posts on the science behind the virus to be tagged as peer-reviewed or not.
“If our posts are not being curated and tagged with very important markers of legitimacy, then we don’t know what to trust, and we start looking for other signals,” she said.
Tech companies are also likely to take some steps back after the outbreak is over.
Politicians may not object when Instagram is working to suppress hoaxes about the coronavirus, but they have voiced serious concerns about moderation of many other topics.
“When they have pressure in the media from people saying, ‘You’re controlling my speech,’ my experience is that Facebook is very, very sensitive to that pressure, especially from the right,” said Zuckerman of MIT.
Zuckerberg, for one, doesn’t seem to think he’s setting a precedent for how Facebook will act in future cases of misinformation.
“When you’re dealing with a pandemic, a lot of the stuff we’re seeing just crossed the threshold,” the Facebook CEO told The New York Times in an interview about the coronavirus. “So it’s easier to set policies that are a little more black and white and take a much harder line.”