Facebook pledges to curb spread of misinformation about novel coronavirus

The social media giant is also planning on giving researchers aggregated and anonymized mobility data.
By Laura Lovett
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Facebook is looking to curb misinformation about the ongoing coronavirus outbreak by removing false claims and conspiracy theories about the disease posted on its social media platforms. 

In a recent blog post, the company announced that it is working with a network of third-party fact checkers to review information. If a piece of information is rated as false, the company pledges to limits its spread on Facebook and Instagram. 

The social media giant is also looking to remove information that global health organizations and government health agencies have deemed to be untrue. 

“Today, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the coronavirus a public health emergency of international concern,” Kang-Xing Jin, head of health at Facebook, wrote in the blog. “As the global public health community works to keep people safe, Facebook is supporting their work in several ways, most especially by working to limit the spread of misinformation and harmful content about the virus and connecting people to helpful information.”

In its place, Facebook plans to put up vetted info from health organizations and agencies. 

“For example, we will help people get relevant and up-to-date information from partners through messages on top of News Feed on Facebook; these will be deployed based on guidance from the WHO,” Jin said. “When people search for information related to the virus on Facebook or tap a related hashtag on Instagram, we will surface an educational pop-up with credible information.”

Facebook also noted that it would be providing aggregated and anonymized mobility data and population density models to help researchers at Harvard and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan create their forecasting modes. 

WHY IT MATTERS 

The new strain of coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has spread to 24,554 cases globally, according to the World Health Organization's report on  Feb. 5So far, just under 500 patients have died from the disease. According to WHO, older people and individuals with preexisting conditions "appear to be more vulnerable" to the virus. 

The number of infections has been growing since the first was reported December 31 in Wuhan, China. So far, the bulk of the cases reported have been in China. However, new cases are emerging around the globe. 

Symptoms include respiratory issues, fever, cough and shortness of breath. WHO said that more server cases can include pneumonia, server acute respiratory syndrome and kidney failure. 

As cases of the virus have spread, as has misinformation about cures and prevention methods. However, multiple organizations, such as WHO and the CDC, are listing advice for the public on the disease. WHO’s website includes a "myth busters" page which debunks rumors about how the virus spreads and proposed cures.

THE LARGER TREND 

This isn’t Facebook’s first go-round in its efforts to prevent health misinformation. Last March it unveiled a new strategy to curb the spread of vaccine misinformation on both its primary social media platform as well as Instagram. Broadly, these included efforts to reduce the prominence of (but not outright ban) certain flagged groups, pages and search results, as well as the adoption of a firm stance against advertising content including false statements about vaccination.

Of course, Facebook has also come under fire over the past couple of years for being too hands-off when it comes to policing the platform. In early December, for instance, a collection of more than 50 LGBTQ, public health and HIV/AIDs activists signed a joint letter urging Facebook to remove advertisements from its platform saying that they say are “factually inaccurate” and scare at-risk users away from pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) treatments. Later that month Washington Post reported that Facebook conceded in removing some of the ads.