How Science and Technology Aim to Curb False Information About Coronavirus

Our battle isn’t restricted to fighting a disease outbreak; alongside that, we are also fighting an information outbreak.

T. Ghebreyesus

During a gathering of security and foreign policy experts in February of this year, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the Director-General of WHO, recognized the increased danger of fake news during the Coronavirus pandemic. He pointed out that aside from dealing with the spread of the virus, we are also coping with an ‘infodemic’ of false information.

It is indeed unfortunate that Mr. Ghebreyesus’s observation about false news being disseminated faster and more extensively than the novel coronavirus itself is accurate. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have observed an abundance of fallacies and misunderstandings arise, spanning from the ill-conceived idea that drinking alcohol can safeguard individuals against the virus, to the baseless fear that the proliferation of 5G mobile networks is a reason for its rapid transmission.

As of late, there has been an upsurge in the dissemination of misinformation regarding the current pandemic, which is widely recognized as the world’s first social media pandemic. The distribution of this false news seems to primarily revolve around three main areas: conspiracy theories concerning the origin of the virus, fraudulent remedies, and downplaying the gravity of the outbreak. It is worrying that these falsehoods are being propagated through social media, considering that this platform has been exploited for a while now to circulate fake information. Fortunately, specialists are already familiar with this type of conduct and possess the necessary expertise to confront it.

Given the gravity of the current problem, technology corporations seem to be more resolute than ever in addressing the infodemic. Various companies are taking measures to assist; for instance, Facebook is taking an active stance to reach out to individuals who have come across harmful misinformation associated with Coronavirus, whereas Google is integrating pertinent content from the World Health Organization into its search results and prohibiting videos that promote fake remedies.

These Unexpected Assessors of Veracity

It is safe to presume that Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and Sundar Pichai would firmly reject the idea that their individual platforms could cause any sort of damage. Nevertheless, they have had to adopt a pragmatic approach to regulating the material posted on their websites to guarantee precision and genuineness. Considering their vast know-how in handling the predicament of disinformation, it is fair to say that they have attained a reasonably satisfactory outcome.

Enterprises operating within the Information Technology (IT) sector are heavily investing in three crucial domains to assist in lessening the global ‘infodemic’ caused by the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19). These three domains encompass the distribution of trustworthy information, the elimination of fabricated data and the prevention of the spread of false news. This is a collaborative endeavour on an unprecedented scale and it has led to concrete advancements in reducing the proliferation of fake news. Instances of this can be observed in the collaborative work of governments, organizations and researchers to furnish precise and up-to-date information concerning the virus and its transmission, as well as the implementation of policies and protocols to help avert the dissemination of fake data.

  • Upon searching for phrases such as “coronavirus” on Google, you will be provided with results from credible sources, such as websites administered by public health organizations. Moreover, salient red labels are exhibited on the results page to facilitate your access to the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  • Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, YouTube had to modify its revenue model and implement new functionalities. Google also adapted its search results to reflect the present circumstances. To ensure that its users can obtain precise and reliable information, YouTube has assigned valuable advertising slots to reputable organizations, adopting a comparable strategy as Amazon, Facebook and Twitter.
  • Facebook is collaborating with autonomous fact-checking entities such as the Associated Press and Reuters to scrutinize the veracity of information concerning the Coronavirus. If Facebook identifies a post that could be fallacious, it will be tagged accordingly and accompanied by an advisory to apprise individuals of the probable untrustworthiness of the assertions made. Moreover, the labelled content will be prevented from spreading throughout user newsfeeds or groups.
  • Facebook has enacted measures to reduce the capability of WhatsApp to disseminate links extensively within groups, aiming to counter the diffusion of fake information on the platform.
  • Amazon and Facebook are both taking resolute measures against vendors who are seeking to exploit the ongoing crisis by vending merchandise that inaccurately purports to remedy or cure the ailment or prevent its transmission. Such practices are utterly reprehensible and will not be countenanced.
  • To thwart the proliferation of the pandemic, Google, Facebook and Twitter have all put in place protocols that prohibit the promotion of items such as face masks and hand sanitizer, which could be viewed as capitalizing on the situation.

Although these preventive measures may seem rudimentary at first glance, in essence, they are pioneering ventures which aim to counteract misinformation. It is too premature to draw any definitive deductions concerning the effectiveness of these ventures, albeit preliminary indications are auspicious. So, does this imply that technology has ultimately won the battle against disinformation? Unfortunately, the response to this is negative.

The Tech Discrepancy in Information Warfare

It would be imprudent to presume that resolving one of the internet’s most urgent predicaments would be facile. Despite having undertaken every feasible step, the efforts of technology companies are still significantly confined. For instance, Google can still be leveraged to access data that is founded on erroneous information, whilst Facebook and Twitter keep presenting content that is fundamentally deceptive, and Amazon persistently provides dubious commodities with pledges of remarkable healing.

It is comprehensible why these platforms are having difficulty keeping pace with the colossal quantity of information being circulated about the Coronavirus, notwithstanding the alerts, the curtailed sharing capabilities, and the engagement of external collaborators. Despite the widespread discussions pertaining to the topic, there is still a likelihood that some of the material is evading detection.

It is plausible that the entire initiative could be ineffective if these institutions adopt a more stringent attitude towards COVID-19 information and begin restricting articles and webpages that manifest even the slightest dubiousness. This is because those who proliferate fake news and conspiracy theories will then accuse the technology industry of suppressing freedom of speech.

It is highly improbable that technology companies would have a tenable defense against the accusations that have been levelled against them. Thus, as a group, the most efficacious strategy for these institutions is to refine their detection systems to diminish the quantity of fake information that is circulated in a world where there are individuals who repudiate established scientific facts, spurn vaccinations, and adhere to an array of conspiratorial theories.

The Information Technology (IT) domain is investigating the immense potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a mechanism to expeditiously process a copious amount of data and precisely categorize it. However, devising a system sophisticated enough to accomplish this is a protracted procedure, and the rudimentary algorithms of AI imply that, currently, we cannot depend on it to aid us in countering the deluge of information.

Despite their potential, Artificial Intelligence (AI) still has some way to go before it can fully displace human beings in all capacities. The ultimate efficiency of any technology relies on the individuals who operate it. To guarantee that fake information is not disseminated to our more elderly grandparents, it is incumbent on us, as the human species, to provide the indispensable component.

Human Interaction

To safeguard ourselves from the propagation of misinformation during the Coronavirus pandemic, it is imperative that we exercise utmost caution when disseminating any information we have perused. Mike Caulfield, an expert in digital technology, has devised a valuable method called SIFT, representing Stop, Investigate the source, Find additional coverage, and Trace information to its initial context. This methodology furnishes a comprehensive means of authenticating the veracity of any information before we distribute it.

It is apparent that the battle has not yet been quelled. Individuals acquainted with computers and the Internet may find the SIFT method more straightforward. Conversely, those who accept everything they read on the internet may be less informed. We are not addressing the malevolent propagation of false information for personal gain; rather, we are alluding to the inexperience of the common citizenry. Hence, it is our duty to remain watchful and patient enough to educate these individuals on how to recognise and evade scams.

We must acknowledge the import of the predicament of disinformation and tackle it with a comprehensive strategy. This involves a range of measures, including holding internet platforms accountable for the content they host and circulate, and incorporating digital proficiency into our education system. In analogous cases in the past, numerous of the major social media platforms refrained from taking resolute actions against the dissemination of false information concerning the pandemic, such as political meddling in elections, climate change skepticism, and anti-vaccination movements.

It is no longer acceptable to disregard the predicament of false information, which has prevailed since before the advent of the Internet. Not only does bogus information disseminate online, but it often spills over into the offline world with deleterious outcomes. Thus, we must remain committed to grooming technologically advanced solutions to combat this quandary. However, until we can devise means to regulate human behaviour, no substantial headway will be accomplished.

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