CORONAVIRUS

Facebook to warn users who 'liked' virus hoaxes

Alerts to begin in coming weeks

Facebook says it will let users know if they liked, reacted or commented on posts with harmful misinformation about the
Facebook says it will let users know if they liked, reacted or commented on posts with harmful misinformation about the coronavirus that moderators later removed. (Associated Press)
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Facebook soon will let you know if you saw or interacted with dangerous coronavirus misinformation on its site.

The new notice will be sent to users who have liked, reacted to or commented on posts featuring harmful or false claims about COVID-19 after they have been removed by moderators.

The alert, which will start appearing on Facebook in the coming weeks, will direct users to a site where the World Health Organization lists and debunks virus myths and rumors.

The latest move is part of an unprecedented effort by Facebook, Google and Twitter that includes stricter rules, altered algorithms and thousands of fact-checks to contain an outbreak of bad information online that’s spreading as quickly as the virus itself.

Challenges remain. Tech platforms have sent home human moderators who police the platforms, forcing them to rely on automated systems to take down harmful content.

They also are up against people’s mistrust of authoritative sources for information, such as the World Health Organization.

“Through this crisis, one of my top priorities is making sure that you see accurate and authoritative information across all of our apps,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page Thursday.

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The company disclosed Thursday that it put more than 40 million warning labels in March over videos, posts or articles about the coronavirus that fact-checking organizations have determined are false or misleading.

The number includes duplicate claims — the labels were based on 4,000 fact-checks.

Facebook says those warning labels have stopped 95 percent of users from clicking on the false information.

“It’s a big indicator that people are trusting the fact-checkers,” said Baybars Orsek, the director of the International Fact-Checking Network.

“The label has an impact on people’s information consumption.”

But Orsek cautioned that the data Facebook provided should be reviewed by outside editors or experts, and called on the historically secretive company to release regular updates about the impact of its fact-checking initiative.

Orsek’s organization is a not-for-profit that certifies news organizations as fact-checkers, a requirement to produce fact-checking articles for Facebook.

Facebook has recruited dozens of news organizations around the globe to check bad information on its site.

Facebook also will begin promoting the articles that debunk COVID-19 misinformation, of which there are thousands, on a new information center called “Get The Facts.”

Still, conspiracy theories, claims about unverified treatments and misinformation about coronavirus vaccines continue to pop up on the site daily — sometimes circumventing the safeguards Facebook has implemented.

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The new feature also only applies to posts on users’ main news feed — not in groups, where misinformation often spreads unchecked, and not on WhatsApp or Instagram, though Facebook has put some other protections in place on those platforms.

Facebook users, for example, viewed a false claim that the virus is destroyed by chlorine dioxide nearly 200,000 times, estimates a new study out today from Avaaz, a left-leaning advocacy group that tracks and researches online misinformation.

The group found more than 100 pieces of misinformation about the coronavirus on Facebook, viewed millions of times even after the claims had been marked as false or misleading by fact checkers.

Other false claims were not labeled as misinformation, despite being declared by fact-checkers as false.

“Coronavirus misinformation content mutates and spreads faster than Facebook’s current system can track it,” Avaaz said in its report.

This is especially problematic for Italian and Spanish misinformation, the report said, because Facebook has been slower to issue warning labels on posts that aren’t in English.

Avaaz also noted that it can take as long as 22 days for Facebook to label misinformation as such — giving it plenty of time to spread.

False claims about coronavirus treatments have had deadly consequences.

Last month, Iranian media reported more than 300 people had died and 1,000 were sickened in the country after ingesting methanol, a toxic alcohol rumored to be a remedy through private social media messages.

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Support our coverage

Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.