NEW YORK (CBS NEWS) — In the wake of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, Facebook and Twitter have been forced to respond to the proliferation of fake news on their platforms.
And while many probably assume the bulk of that misinformation is political in focus, trolls and bots on social media have actually been linked to the marketing of vaping products, the anti-vaccination movement and now, fake cures for coronavirus.
A quick glance at Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or TikTok will provide a slew of these fake cures: garlic, masturbation, bleach, even cocaine.
Prominent QAnon YouTuber Jordan Sather, for example, tweeted to his more than 121,000 followers that a “miracle mineral solution,” which effectively involves drinking bleach, can wipe out COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“Not only is chlorine dioxide (aka ‘MMS’) an effective cancer cell killer, it can wipe out coronavirus too,” he wrote. “Big Pharma wants you ignorant.”
The FDA has long warned that drinking chlorine dioxide products can lead to “severe vomiting, severe diarrhea, life-threatening low blood pressure caused by dehydration, and acute liver failure.” Yet, with each new outbreak or high-profile illness that arises, these products are seemingly promoted on social media and sold by independent distributors anew.
Sadly, drinking bleach isn’t the only dangerous “cure” that bad actors are peddling online to a population increasingly anxious about the current outbreak. The most recent rumor spreading at a rapid pace is that cocaine will counteract COVID-19.
On Facebook — where a third-party fact-checking program is in place — many of these posts now have false information warnings that serve both to warn users of the content’s unreliability and to deprioritize them in the platform’s algorithm. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg also addressed the issue in a March 3 post, saying the company is working with national ministries of health and organizations “to help them get out timely, accurate information on the coronavirus.”
On Twitter, however, some of the most prominent posts spreading dangerous misinformation have gone unchecked — even from verified accounts. Bizzle Osikoya, for example — a Nigerian music and entertainment developer with more than 190,000 followers — tweeted a doctored image, which purports to be a screenshot of a breaking news segment on TV. It has gotten nearly 6,000 likes and almost 3,000 retweets, and has remained on the platform for more than a month without any sort of warning the content’s falsehood.
For the first time Sunday, Twitter rolled out a “manipulated media” label. However, as CNET senior producer Dan Patterson points out, this label can still be problematic in that it may give users a false sense of security that all posts without it are accurate. As illustrated by Bizzle Osikoya’s tweet above, that is clearly not the case.
In fact, according to the Washington Post, an investigation by the U.S. State Department found that a staggering 2 million tweets in circulation during a three-week period between January 20 and February 10 propagated coronavirus conspiracy theories and misinformation. That means that 7% of all coronavirus content on the platform was false.
To make matters worse, many of those tweets reportedly linked to YouTube videos, signaling that the current deluge of coronavirus misinformation has spread well beyond Twitter and Facebook.
On Sunday, in an effort to combat such viral disinformation, the French Ministry of Health tweeted a firm rebuttal: “No, cocaine does not protect against COVID-19. Cocaine is an addictive stimulant drug. Using it can seriously harm people’s health and create undesirable effects.”
In perhaps the most stunning sign of the times, the World Health Organization created a TikTok account to combat all of the misinformation there and give teens the real facts on what is rapidly becoming the most popular social media platform among that demographic.
Incredibly, their TikTok on when and how face masks should be worn already has more than 40 million views. Their first video on how to protect yourself from coronavirus has more than 33 million. So, there may be hope for the truth yet.
When asked for comment, a Twitter spokesperson told CBS News, “We continue to expand our dedicated search prompt feature to ensure that when you come to the service for information about COVID-19, you are met with credible, authoritative content at the top of your search experience. We have been consistently monitoring the conversation on the service to make sure keywords — including common misspellings — also generate the search prompt.”
“Our global Trust & Safety team is continuing its zero-tolerance approach to platform manipulation and any other attempts to abuse our service at this critical juncture,” the spokesperson continued. “At present, we’re not seeing significant coordinated platform manipulation efforts around these issues. However, we will remain vigilant and have invested substantially in our proactive abilities to ensure trends, search, and other common areas of the service are protected from malicious behaviors. As ever, we also welcome constructive and open information sharing from governments and academics to further our work in these areas — we’re in this together.”
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