NEW YORK • The biggest reputational risk Facebook and other social media firms had expected this year was fake news surrounding the United States presidential election. The misinformation threat seemed familiar, even manageable.
The new coronavirus, however, has opened up an entirely different problem: the life-endangering consequences of supposed cures, misleading claims and conspiracy theories about the outbreak.
Experts say stronger action by technology companies is needed to stop misinformation and the scale at which it can be spread online.
"There's still a disconnect between what people think is true and what people are willing to share," said Professor David Rand, a specialist in brain and cognitive sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management, explaining how a user's bias towards content he or she thinks will be liked or shared typically dominates decision-making online. Part of the reason is that social media algorithms are geared to appeal to someone's habits and interests.
Prompts urging users to consider the accuracy of content they are spreading on social networks are needed, said Prof Rand, co-author of a study on Covid-19 misinformation published earlier this month. Using controlled tests with more than 1,600 participants, the study found that false claims were shared in part because people failed to think about whether the content was reliable. In a second test, when people were reminded to consider the accuracy of what they were going to share, their level of truth awareness more than doubled.
That approach - known as "accuracy nudge intervention" - from social media companies could limit the spread of misinformation, said the report.
"These are the kind of things that make the concept of accuracy top of the minds of people," said Prof Rand. "There probably is concern from social networking companies about accuracy warnings degrading the user experience... But I hope by talking about this more, we'll get them to take this seriously and try it."
What is undoubted is that misinformation about the coronavirus has been deadly. In Iran, a fake remedy of ingesting methanol has led to 300 deaths.
Facebook has placed authoritative coronavirus information at the top of news feeds and intensified its efforts to remove harmful content. But a spokesman declined to comment on the possibility of adding accuracy prompts to its platform.
A Twitter spokesman also did not address whether the firm might consider using prompts.
The Covid-19 misinformation study mirrored past tests for political fake news, notably in that reminders about accuracy would be a simple way to improve choices about what people share.
"Accuracy nudges are straightforward for social media platforms to implement... and could have an immediate positive impact on stemming the tide of misinformation about the Covid-19 outbreak," the authors concluded.