Containing the online spread of fake news on Wuhan coronavirus

The spread of fake news on social media has grown increasingly rampant amidst the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak which was declared a global emergency by the World Health Organisation (WHO) just today. This week, the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission and the Royal Malaysia Police detained a total of four individuals from Melaka, Kedah and Pahang who were suspected of spreading false news regarding the outbreak.

Ministry of Health Malaysia also debunked fake news claiming that a 23-year-old Indian citizen from Tripura, India passed away in a local Malaysia-based hospital after being infected by the virus. Meanwhile, The Star also reported that health experts in Malaysia urged citizens not to spread rumours and unverified information.

The Singapore government is also clamping down on fake news spread in the country. Just yesterday, the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) lifted the temporary exemption of Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill (POFMA) for Facebook, Google Search, Baidu, Twitter, and HardwareZone. As such, MCI said these Internet intermediaries will be required to carry out general correction direction if the Act is applied to them.

According to MCI, a general correction direction maybe issued where a false statement of fact has been communicated in Singapore, and it is in the public interest to issue the correction. It explained that the lifting of the temporary exemption is critical given the evolving situation with the Wuhan coronavirus.

"The government is prepared to use all tools at its disposal to provide the public with accurate and up-to-date information, and to deal with falsehoods that may cause panic or confusion. We have worked closely with the relevant technology companies, and appreciate the industry’s support and cooperation in our national response to this challenging situation," MCI added. This comes shortly after Singapore Press Holdings was also ordered to carry out a correction notice under POFMA regarding one of the posts on its online forum Hardware Zone. The false statement claimed that a man had died from the Wuhan coronavirus infection in Singapore.

Social media companies take action

The virus outbreak has led to growing widespread alarm among consumers worldwide, and the dissemination of misinformation can potentially send the world into further panic. As such, social media firms are now implementing measures to double down on fake news.

On Wednesday, Twitter said that it has adjusted its search prompt to ensure that authoritative health sources including the WHO, Ministry of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US appear upfront, when users search for "#coronavirus" on Twitter. It is also halting any auto-suggest result that is likely to direct individuals to non-credible content on Twitter. The company said this is an expansion of its #KnowTheFacts prompt, which it specifically put in place for the public to find clear, credible information on immunisation and vaccination health. Twitter's official #coronavirus partnerships with Ministries are now in place in Australia, Brazil, Canada, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, US, UK and Vietnam. The company added it will continue to expand as the need arises.

While it is not seeing significant coordinated attempts to spread disinformation at scale about this issue by the public, Twitter said it will remain vigilant and have "invested significantly" in its proactive abilities to ensure trends, search, and other common areas of the service are protected from malicious behaviors. "We do not permit platform manipulation and we encourage people to think before sharing or engaging in deliberate attempts to undermine the public conversation," Twitter added.

Google also just launched an SOS Alert in partnership with WHO to make resources about the coronavirus easily accessible. When consumers search for related information on Google, they will find the alert at the top of results page with direct access to safety tips, information, resources, and Twitter updates from WHO. In its Search feature, for queries that pertain to topics like health information that are particularly sensitive and may be susceptible to misinformation, Google said its systems are automatically designed to place even more importance on authoritativeness signals.

Meanwhile on YouTube, the company is "investing heavily" to raise authoritative content on the platform and reduce the spread of misinformation. The platform will surface videos from experts or media outlets, such as public health institutions or news organisations, in search results. "Reliable information becomes especially critical as news is breaking. But as events are unfolding, it can take time to produce high-quality videos containing verified facts. That’s why we’re showing the most authoritative sources in our Top News in Search and Breaking News in Search panels," YouTube said on a blogpost.

Facebook's spokesperson told Marketing in a statement that several of its third-party fact-checking partners worldwide have rated content false, so it is "dramatically reducing" its distribution. People who see those types of content, try to share it, or already have, are alerted that it is false. "This situation is fast-evolving and we will continue our outreach to global and regional health organisations to provide support and assistance," the spokesperson added. Facebook has also already added strong warning labels to the false content, alongside a link to accurate information from its fact-checking partners, which include Associated Press, AFP Hong Kong, PolitiFact, and Rappler IQ in the Philippines. The company also provided ad credits to WHO and the Philippines' Department of Health to enable them to run coronavirus education campaigns on Facebook in-region.

In Asia, Facebook is working with the Centre for Health Protection in Hong Kong to support its public education Facebook campaign to prevent coronavirus. Facebook is also working closely with Hong Kong's Department of Health, Li Ka Shing Faculty of Medicine, The University of Hong Kong, Taiwan's Ministry of Health and Welfare, Thai Health Promotion Foundation and the Thai CDC, India's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, and Sri Lanka's Health Promotion Bureau of Ministry of Health. It is sharing aggregated mobility data and high-resolution population density maps with various partners including the Harvard School of Public Health and National Tsinghua University (Taiwan), to help inform forecasting models for the spread of the virus under its Data for Good programme.

Is dark social an issue?

While platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google make it slightly easier for companies to track users' behaviours and clamp down on fake news, dark social, including private channels such as messaging apps or emails are slightly trickier. According to content performance analytics platform GetSocial, 77.5% of content shares in the first half of 2019 were on dark social. GetSocial works with clients such as Adobe, Forbes, Vodafone, WWF, and Sky News.

Recently, fitness chain Fitness First Singapore fell prey to the spread of misinformation on dark social, and publicly debunked a bogus notice circulating on messaging apps which alleged that its clubs are closed until further notice. The chain clarified in a Facebook statement that its clubs are operating normally and it is filing a police report. According to Channel NewsAsia, the fake notice resembled one of Fitness First Singapore's earlier Facebook posts, which said extended precautionary measures will be implemented at the clubs to ensure users' well-being and safety, due to the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak.

In light of the spread of misinformation, popular messaging app WhatsApp has taken upon itself to set a limit on forwarding messages to just five chats at once.

According to its parent company Facebook, this approach reduced the amount of forwarded messages on WhatsApp by 25%.

The platform also removes over two million accounts per month for bulk or automated behaviour. Additionally, WhatsApp added a label that highlights when a user receives a message that has been forwarded to them. According to the company, this helps people know when a message they have received was not created by the person who sent it. Any message that has been forwarded more than four times get a “highly forwarded” label automatically.

WeChat, a Tencent-owned messaging app popular among Chinese consumers, also rolled out a variety of tools and features to debunk false rumours on its platforms. Its spokesperson told Marketing that users who search for "Pneumonia Fact Check" (肺炎辟谣) will see verified news results provided by “Tencent Fact Check” (腾讯较真), a fact-checking service provided by Tencent News.

A mini programme titled “Rumor Debunking Assistant” (微信辟谣助手) launched in 2017 also alerts users of fake news posts, along with an official account titled "Rumour Filter", that publishes articles that were recently debunked. "For these fact-checking initiatives, we partner with a total of 774 authoritative and verified information sources including various government departments and media outlets in verifying information on our platform. WeChat also offers users the means to report content that is in violation of our misinformation policies, and newly added a fast-track button for users to report Coronavirus-related misinformation," the spokesperson added.

WeChat is also marking content as false, taking down posts, or blocking accounts that publish disinformation temporarily or permanently.

Can more be done to tackle fake news?

GroupM's APAC head of social, managing partner, Amanda Grant, said messaging platforms are more difficult for platforms to police as they are supposed to be intentionally private. Due to this users also have to be more diligent and not take things at face value.

Meanwhile, Grant added social media companies need to ensure they are not perpetuating a systemic situation whereby their platforms are placing inaccurate information that leads to sharing. As of now, platforms have provided an effective way to know if a piece of information is credible or verified, but Grant said more can be done by social media companies to educate users. These include ways to identify a credible source for information on public health, and how to identify a credible source or what a verification badge on Facebook and Twitter is.

"However, users also need to know that just because an account is verified does not mean everything it says is accurate. For example, an entertainer might have a verified social media account, but he or she should not have anything to say about the virus as it is unrelated to their expertise," she said.

She added that social media platforms can also work to surface relevant health information first instead of having someone seeking it out. While social media companies are currently pushing out verified and credible sources amidst the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak, Grant said companies should consider making this a constant, long-term effort instead of waiting for fake news to gain traction and acting on it.  Social media, given its reach and accessibility, can be a very powerful and impactful way for countries public health organisations to get timely updates out quickly.

"Nonetheless, the issues with fake news and misinformation, that has engulfed the coronavirus conversation, is not dissimilar to issues major social platforms have encountered around other important topics such as political and issues-based content," she added.

We've seen platforms begin to test 'false information' warnings, and typically algorithms prioritise credible sources in the feed, but because these are open and UGC-friendly platforms, it's an ongoing issue.

Wunderman Thompson Singapore CEO Nimesh Desai said both platforms and individuals have an equal responsibility regarding the spread of misinformation. While platforms have put in place processes and tools to weed out fake news, it is not fool proof as the sheer volume and ability to share content across platforms instantly makes it a challenge. Individuals also have a social responsibility to not forward content that they deem to be from questionable sources, Desai said.

"Social media platforms should also empower users to rate legitimacy of content as over 50% of misinformation is through those channels," he added. Desai also explained that publishers and content providers need to do a better job of raising awareness on the implications of fake news.

This has to be a constant effort as opposed to a cyclical discussion point.

"Governments also need to step up educational campaigns (fines and policies will not suffice) to help citizens become more aware of the role they play in the spread of misinformation," he added.