Technology companies are taking action on misinformation, but more transparency is needed

Yes, it is no doubt technology companies have been at the forefront in the battle against the COVID-19 misinformation. Facebook is supporting the global public health community’s work to keep people safe and informed through its COVID-19 information hub which ensures everyone on the platform has access to accurate information. Their developers are removing harmful content and prohibiting exploitative ads to create a safe environment for connecting people to credible information. Nearly 40 million posts on Facebook related to COVID-19 have received warnings placed next to them, and hundreds of thousands of pieces of misinformation about the virus have been removed from the site. Facebook-owed WhatsApp is delivering COVID-19 facts to the billions of people on the app. 

Google has committed $6.5 million to help fight coronavirus misinformation. It is directing COVID-19 queries on YouTube to the World Health Organization and has made a ‚ÄėSOS‚Äô alert on its search engine to draw user attention and direct them to credible information. Twitter on the other end is fighting unverified claims that could cause widespread panic, social unrest and misleading information around COVID-19 diagnostic criteria or procedures among much other misinformation. Twitter says it warned 3.4 million accounts driving manipulative discussions around COVID-19. They‚Äôve also carried out a global verification exercise on accounts owned by health experts so as to support the distribution of trusted data.

The tech giants have begun using algorithms and factual warnings to knock down harmful coronavirus conspiracy theories, questionable ads, and unproven remedies. In March, Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit, Twitter, and YouTube issued a joint statement on their commitment to fighting the COVID-related misinformation. The tech giants said they were helping millions of people to stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on their platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world.

All these initiatives are contributing a lot to the responsible media consumption, enhance public trust, and give the health front liners a humble time to contain the virus. But that is not enough according to many experts. A group of scholars and nonprofit organizations have written an open letter to the tech companies to keep track of the coronavirus content they’re removing so they can make it available to researchers for study.

Access Now, Africa Media Development Foundation (AMDF), AlgorithmWatch, Association for Progressive Communications, Center for Democracy & Technology
Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) among many other signatories want the data preserved and availed for them and all those working in public health, human rights, science, and academia as it will be crucial to develop public safeguards to address many issues.

‚ÄúThe importance of accurate information during this pandemic is clear. But knowledge about the novel coronavirus is rapidly evolving. This is also an unprecedented opportunity to study how online information flows ultimately affect health outcomes, and to evaluate the macro- and micro-level consequences of relying on automation to moderate content in a complex and evolving information environment,‚ÄĚ read the statement from Center for Democracy and Technology.

The organizations want the web platforms to:

  1. Immediately commit to preserving all data on content removal during the COVID-19 pandemic, including but not limited to information about which takedowns did not receive a human review, whether users tried to appeal the takedown (when that information is available), and reports that were not acted upon. 
  2. Preserve all content that the platform is automatically blocking or removing, including individual posts, videos, images, and entire accounts.
  3. Produce transparency reports that include information about content blocking and removal related to COVID-19 
  4. Provide access to this data in the future to researchers and journalists, recognizing that privacy will need to be ensured.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization also wants the internet companies to align their codes of conduct and practice with international standards of human rights. UNESCO says it is not enough to only block the misinformation posted on the tech sites and not provide a transparent report to the public. The UN specialized agency argues that in the absence of comprehensive statistics from the companies, it is hard to assess the real significance of the figures that they release.

‚ÄúThe proportion of disinformation in relation to the total volumes of content and adverts carried is not evident. Second, the extent of circulation of false content before being identified, and the role of ‚Äúsuper spreaders‚ÄĚ in the chain, is not made public,‚ÄĚ read the statement by UNESCO.

Tech companies have always been accused of turning away from transparency reports, not practicing transparency reporting, dropping the practice, or weakening their support for it which would have been very essential in detecting and debunking the misinformation pandemic.

Enock Bett152 Posts

Media and Public Relations Practitioner, Technology & Business News Editor |New Media Enthusiast||Pushing Boundaries, Defying Limits & Exceeding Expectations|

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