News

March 19, 2020

Platforms response to coronavirus shows that, when they want, they can

Denis Charlet / AFP
In response to the flood of rumours and misinformation about the coronavirus epidemic, leading online platforms have taken unprecedented measures to promote reliable information – measures contrary to their usual practices. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) urges them to promote trustworthy content whatever the subject concerned.

The measures taken to combat misinformation about Covid-19 shows that platforms have the capacity to implement structural responses to information chaos. In future, RSF urges them to be more transparent about the mechanisms available for promoting reliable information and to undertake to use these mechanisms routinely. These mechanisms should not be discretionary and should be based on transparent principles.

 

During a major public health crisis in which the situation is evolving rapidly, access to reliable information is vital in order to protect the public,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Journalistic freedom and independence play a central role. Platforms must be transparent about the rules governing the promotion of trustworthy information and must continue this approach in the future.”

 

This is why RSF developed the Journalism Trust Initiative (JTI), which has formulated indicators of reliable and independent information in order to encourage the use of journalistic methods and compliance with media ethics. Platforms could incorporate the JTI standard as an “integrity factor” into their algorithms. Search engine algorithms are based on many factors but not, at this time, on editorial compliance with certain fundamental principles.

 

According to a confidential US State Department report seen by the Washington Post, between 20 January (the date when the Chinese authorities first reported human-to-human coronavirus transmission) and 10 February, 2 million of the messages posted on Twitter (7% of the total) were spreading conspiracy theories about the coronavirus. To combat this phenomenon, Twitter promotes verified public health accounts and offers users “authoritative” sources of information about the coronavirus. Twitter selects content posted by public health organizations, government officials and certain national media outlets without explaining the rules that determined its selection.

 

With the help of regional and international public health organizations, including the WHO, Facebook has been “limiting misinformation and harmful content” about the coronavirus since 30 January, and has modified its recommendation algorithm in order to remove pages and groups linked to the coronavirus. Facebook usually limits the distribution of information that has been verified as misleading by its network of fact-checkers by tagging it as such and by offering alternative sources of information.

 

Instagram and Google have modified their interfaces in order to promote verified information. YouTube is offering videos with information panels and is stepping up its efforts to remove false information. In coronavirus related searches, Pinterest just offers information published by the WHO.