Yesterday (9 March) the new DCMS Secretary of State announced the creation of a cross-Whitehall unit set up to tackle misinformation related to coronavirus. It’s early days but is indicative of the concerns in Government that false information could be deliberately being spread online. Whilst allegations of a coordinated, state-sponsored misinformation campaign is not borne out by what we are seeing on the ground, the principle that we must find ways to get high-quality information to the public and reduce misinformation is something that tech companies are live to.
In many ways the work tech companies are doing to signpost and highlight credible information, whilst downgrading or removing misleading information, is nothing new. For example, in 2019 the NHS partnered with Amazon’s Alexa team to ensure that voice searches for health-related advice would return NHS results, helping ensure the public received the best information out there. However, tech companies are always on the lookout to improve their systems and innovate ways to tackle the spread of misinformation. Necessarily this relies on three main pillars of working: partnerships, people and technology.
We’re seeing an increase in partnership working between tech companies and public health bodies. NHS England has partnered with Twitter, Instagram and Facebook to ensure that verify/’blue tick’ NHS accounts as trusted organisations. Meanwhile, the NHS and Google is introducing new Knowledge Panels – prominent pop out boxes of information to ensure it provides the public in the UK with easy access to NHS information about more than 250 health conditions, including coronavirus. This is the culmination of months of work and will ensure that when people are searching for “coronavirus symptoms” or more worryingly – “coronavirus cure” they are served with the most accurate and up to date information from trusted sources.
The World Health Organisation have said they’re dealing with an “infodemic”, which it defines as "an overabundance of information — some accurate and some not — that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.” Online companies are working with fact-checking partners to verify claims about the virus and debunk myths. Marketplaces are working with government officials in localities across the globe to ensure that products that fall foul of local laws don’t appear on their platforms.
Of course, people working to fact-check and remove content only goes so far. It is vital that the Government and public health officials continue to use all channels of communications open to them to cascade information to the public to inform and reassure.
Companies also continue to innovate to better spot misinformation and remove or delist content. This is a huge challenge particularly when in a number of scenarios misinformation is being spread on private channels/groups and on forums with less sophisticated tools underpinning their services.
The spread of misinformation through private channels and on discussion forums again highlights the grassroots nature of the spread of misinformation. It will be impossible to prevent all misinformation online which reinforces the need to ensure that high-quality information is upgraded and spotlighted to ensure people’s first source is a strong one.