“Misinformation during times of a health crisis can result in people being left unprotected or more vulnerable to the virus. It can also spread paranoia, fear and stigmatization, and have other consequences, like offering a false sense of protection.”
The above is from Christopher Tidey, a spokesman for UNICEF. He was addressing the waves of coronavirus ‘advice’ pervading social media, which include claims that sunshine can kill the virus, and that ice cream makes it worse.
While the speed at which the virus has spread feels new to many of us, the blistering pace of digital dishonesty has been old hat for years.
Now that lives are at stake in every corner of the world, a swift and unflinching response is imperative — and needs to come from the social networks that perpetuate such myth. There’s also a responsibility on online retailers to trade honestly and shut down those who don’t.
The scale of the response has been almost unprecedented.
Virtually every social platform is waging war on false claims, making a concerted effort to promote content from established authorities like the World Health Organisation. Facebook is banning adverts to stem coronavirus fears, while Twitter remains in a battle to mitigate the hacks claiming to sell toilet roll and unsafe medical masks.
On the more explicitly commercial side, Amazon has left more than one would-be price gouger with a cease and desist letter and a garage full of hand sanitiser.
The quality of the response won’t be perfect, but it’s heartening to see tech giants take on social responsibilities in this way.
So why have they never done so before?
It is ironic that social media platforms have a notorious reputation for failing to protect society from themedia. They have immense power and impossible volumes of private data, and have made errors or consciously sidestepped opportunities to use it for the nebulous-but-idealist ‘greater good.’
Facebook is a well-known example here. Mark Zuckerberg’s appearance in front of the U.S. Senate came about as a result from the data leak of 90m Facebook users, less than a year after it was revealed that $100,000 of adverts had been purchased by Russia to influence the U.S. Election. When asked who Facebook’s biggest competitors were, Zuckerberg couldn’t name one.
Every internet giant has a similar list of crimes and suspicious behaviours. Twitter only managed to ban political adverts late last year, while Jeff Bezos has said that the only way he can make use of the $130bn fortune he’s amassed — in spite of relying heavily on the relatively low cost workers he employs labouring in “unsafe, gruelling working conditions” —is “space travel. That is basically it.” You could turn this blog into a thesis if you were so bloody-minded.
So, while it is heartening to see these organisations commit to protecting humanity from misinformation and taking on some form of social responsibility, it also highlights a litany of failures over the past decade.
The crisis that we face has highlighted the ability that such platforms have to enact change, and by extension, the gaping absence of care for the individual before the global population was at serious biological risk. When the dust settles, we’d do well to remember it.