Facebook, Twitter weeding out fake news on Covid-19

Social media giants Facebook and Twitter have been removing millions of fake news items from their platforms in a bid to stamp out misinformation surrounding Covid-19, The Straits Times has learnt.

The two companies have also been stepping up to highlight credible information on the disease and encourage vaccinations, as countries around the world go on inoculation drives.

A Twitter spokesman told ST last Thursday that the company has removed more than 22,400 tweets and challenged 11.7 million accounts worldwide that contained problematic content since last year.

It had said last month that it had removed 8,493 tweets and challenged 11.5 million accounts.

Owners of challenged accounts have to provide Twitter with a means of verification, like a phone number or e-mail address, to prevent abuse.

Meanwhile, since last month, Facebook has removed two million content items from Facebook and Instagram, after expanding the list of false claims that it will remove during the pandemic.

Facebook's list, which it developed with health authorities like the World Health Organisation, had initially covered false information about issues like the existence or severity of Covid-19, the way the disease is transmitted, as well as "guaranteed" cures like drinking bleach.

It now also includes additional false claims, such as how vaccines are not effective at preventing the disease, why it is safer to get the disease than the vaccine, and why vaccines are toxic or dangerous or cause autism.

Twitter has also been broadening its policy surrounding fake news to include vaccinations.

Its spokesman told ST: "Tweets which advance harmful, false or misleading narratives about Covid-19 vaccinations will be removed."

On its Covid-19 misleading information policy page online, Twitter said that in order for content related to the virus to be labelled or removed under this policy, it must advance a claim of fact expressed in definitive terms; be demonstrably false or misleading, based on widely available and authoritative sources; and be likely to impact public safety or cause serious harm.​

  • >22,400 Number of tweets containing problematic content that Twitter has removed since last year.

    11.7m Number of accounts that Twitter has challenged regarding problematic content since last year.

    2 m Number of content items that Facebook has removed from its platform and Instagram since last month over false claims.

From this month, Twitter has been applying warning labels to tweets that may contain misleading information about Covid-19 vaccines.

It has also implemented a system of enforcement that could see users permanently banned for repeat violations of its policies.

Facebook also plans to add labels to posts that discuss vaccines. For instance, a label might say that Covid-19 vaccines go through tests for safety and effectiveness before they are approved, on posts that discuss their safety.

Last week, its founder Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post that his company would be launching a global campaign to help take 50 million people "a step closer" to getting Covid-19 vaccines.

The company is launching a tool that will inform users when and where they can get vaccinated, and which can provide them with a link to make an appointment for vaccination.

It will also work with the authorities worldwide to help people register for vaccines by making adjustments to chatbots on WhatsApp, which Facebook owns.

Mr Zuckerberg said over three billion messages related to Covid-19 have been sent by governments, non-profits and international organisations to citizens through official WhatsApp chatbots, and this update will help with the vaccination effort as well.

Nanyang Technological University communications professor Shirley Ho said such steps need to continue.

"Social media giants need to pull their weight by actively removing inaccurate information (and) fake news about vaccines from their platforms, and by restricting further dissemination of such misinformation."

  • Additional reporting by Yuen Sin

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2021, with the headline Facebook, Twitter weeding out fake news on Covid-19. Subscribe