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Facebook and Twitter ignore reports on Covid disinformation

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Facebook and Twitter did not protect their users from 43 accounts that continued to spread dangerous misinformation about Covid, despite such accounts being reported to them by NewsGuard over a year ago. Of the 85 accounts reported by NewsGuard for spreading disinformation about the virus at the start of the pandemic, more than half saw no concrete action taken by the platforms. Nearly a quarter of these accounts have grown, gaining over a million new followers and likes overall. This prolonged inaction of platforms in addressing the damage caused by their services helps to understand why lawmakers and regulators are increasingly looking for concrete solutions, which go beyond the hope that these companies will act voluntarily to protect their users.

In April 2020, NewsGuard released four reports on Covid super-spreaders of disinformation on Facebook and Twitter in the US and Europe. These reports highlighted 85 accounts and pages that shared unequivocally false information relating to the Coronavirus pandemic. Both platforms were notified of these reports after publication, and both Facebook and Twitter commented on NewsGuard’s search results. Despite this, in November 2021, 43 of these accounts were still active and 19 of them increased the number of likes or followers, according to the check carried out by NewsGuard. All 43 accounts have since released other false information relating to Covid.

Facebook and Twitter could take a number of effective measures to mitigate the harm posed by these accounts, which go beyond the opaque, unreliable and blatantly inconsistent strategy of censoring them, simply by removing them or hiding the number of users who view them. These strategies could include fact-checking of individual posts, although fact-checking is difficult to implement on a large scale and only takes place after the false claims have spread widely. Platforms could also adopt the effective and more easily feasible strategy on a large scale of proactively providing ratings and fact sheets explaining to their users that a source in their news feed or Facebook groups is a known disseminator of false information. and urge them to proceed with caution. The platforms could open their products to independent third parties who provide guidance on the reliability of sources so that users have the ability to access security protections and other middleware solutions.

False claims shared by accounts reported by NewsGuard in April 2020, which are still active on Facebook or Twitter, included:

Covid does not exist

Bill Gates announced that Covid vaccines would result in 700,000 deaths

5G technology is linked to the spread of Covid

Covid was predicted in a simulation

Vitamin C can prevent Covid

Covid is a “biological weapon created in an American military laboratory”

Healthy people are “not harmed” by Covid

Covid vaccines have a microchip tracking technology funded by Bill Gates

Of the 26 Twitter accounts reported by NewsGuard, 13 were still active in November 2021, and 10 of them gained 358,927 new followers. Of the 59 Facebook accounts reported by NewsGuard, 31 were still active and nine overall earned 718,000 new likes. Taken together, the Facebook and Twitter accounts that have posted false information and that have grown have gained 1,076,927 new likes or followers since April 2020. Five Facebook accounts and one Twitter account included in NewsGuard’s April 2020 reports were not considered in this analysis since they have since stopped publishing disinformation on Covid.

Although Twitter removed a greater percentage (50%) of the reported accounts than Facebook (47.5%), those who remained active on Twitter saw a significantly higher increase in their following (23.7% on average) than the pages and accounts remained active on Facebook (3.9% on average).

Incongruities between countries

The actions of Twitter and Facebook against these pages were uneven: different according to the country of origin of the accounts. Twitter removed more than half of the reported accounts in the US, while all but one French accounts were still active. We noticed the same trend on Facebook. The United States saw the largest percentage of removals, with 38% of reported accounts removed, while France only saw 17% removed. NewsGuard’s April 2020 report on COVID-19 disinformation super-diffusers on Facebook found at least nine pages sharing false claims that vitamin C can cure COVID-19. Of these nine, four have been removed and five remain active. Facebook users are not given any indication by the platform as to why some pages may continue to spread disinformation while others are being removed.

These findings echo those of two other recent reports published by NewsGuard. An October 2021 report for the World Health Organization and also sent to other NGOs, health authorities, regulators and government officials in Europe and the United States showed that 20 Facebook accounts, pages or groups known to spread disinformation on COVID-19 or its vaccines have acquired a total of 370,000 followers in one year. The other report, released in September 2021, showed that the TikTok video sharing app was providing vaccine disinformation to 9-year-olds without them following any accounts or using the search bar.

The continued tolerance of platforms for this type of disinformation could be a result of their deliberately being opaque in the way decisions are made about disinformation, fact-checking and content removal. In October 2021, documents leaked by Facebook whistleblower France Haugen showed that Facebook conducted numerous studies on how disinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines spreads on the platform. Facebook’s own research showed that disinformation echo chambers were fueling vaccine hesitation and that posts from reputable news sources, such as the World Health Organization, were chock-full of comments from no-vax activists. Despite requests from experts, lawmakers, and the Biden administration, Facebook has chosen to keep this data secret.

It is unclear how platforms determine which pages are removed and which are not. Even when accounts share exactly the same hoaxes, some are removed while others remain active. NewsGuard’s April 2020 report on COVID-19 disinformation super-spreaders on Twitter found four pages sharing false claims linking 5G technology to the spread of COVID-19. Again, users have no way of knowing why some of these accounts were removed and others remained on the platform.

Removing the content does not appear to work, nor does it appear to achieve the desired result. Social media companies could help protect their users by labeling these accounts and pages as spreaders of disinformation. Providing users with more information, by not deleting accounts or secretly removing content, would help them understand which pages can be trusted because they adhere to the platform’s core standards and which don’t. Instead, the removal criteria are opaque and used inconsistently. And users are kept in the dark about how decisions are made about the content they view.

Summary of the results

All 85 accounts NewsGuard reported in April 2020 for spreading disinformation about COVID-19 continued to do so. 43 did not see any action from the platforms and 19 increased their number of followers, on average by 13.8%.

Of the 26 accounts NewsGuard reported to Twitter for spreading disinformation about COVID-19, 13 saw no action from the platform, and 10 of these increased their follower count by 358,927, an average increase of 23.7. %.

Of the 59 accounts that NewsGuard reported to Facebook for spreading disinformation about COVID-19, 31 did not see any action from the platform and 9 of them increased their overall number of likes by about 718,000.

With the collaboration of Melissa Goldin, Chine Labbé, Marie Richter, Kendrick McDonald and Virginia Padovese

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