With concerns about the spread of coronavirus rising, and related discussion now stretching across the world, both Twitter and Facebook have this week outlined the proactive measures they're taking to ensure that their respective users are guided towards accurate sources of information, and that the conversation is not hijacked by those looking to spread fear.
Twitter says that there have been more than 15 million tweets about the coronovirus outbreak already, and the discussion is gaining momentum fast. And while Twitter also notes that it hasn't seen any "significant coordinated attempts to spread disinformation at scale about this issue", it's allocated resources "to ensure that trends, search, and other common areas of the service are protected from malicious behaviors."
"As ever, those who engage in these practices will be removed from our service. We do not permit platform manipulation and we encourage people to think before sharing or engaging in deliberate attempts to undermine the public conversation."
In addition to monitoring the various discussion threads, Twitter is also adding a new search prompt, in several languages, which will guide users who do search for coronavirus information to official resources and accurate information on the outbreak.
Twitter is also halting any auto-suggest results which are likely to direct individuals to non-credible coronavirus content, while it's additionally working with official health groups to provide any assistance - in relation to tweet data and mass tweet sends - which could help improve response to the global effort to stop the virus' spread.
Over on Facebook, they're undertaking similar measures, with fact-checking teams monitoring the related conversation and flagging inaccurate posts.
"Our global network of third-party fact-checkers are continuing their work reviewing content and debunking false claims that are spreading related to the coronavirus. When they rate information as false, we limit its spread on Facebook and Instagram and show people accurate information from these partners. We also send notifications to people who already shared or are trying to share this content to alert them that it’s been fact-checked."
Facebook says that it will also remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories which have been flagged by health authorities as potentially causing harm to people who believe them.
In addition, Facebook will also push dedicated News Feed notifications on the coronavirus to users in relevant regions, as guided by the World Health Organization, while it's also adding similar search query prompts to Twitter, based on those who enter queries related to the outbreak.
"When people search for information related to the virus on Facebook or tap a related hashtag on Instagram, we will return a dedicated information module with credible information."
Facebook's also providing free advertising credits to relevant organizations which are looking to run coronavirus education campaigns on Facebook and Instagram, and it's providing population density maps and other data to authorities as required.
The level of angst around the spread of the coronavirus is rising every day, and given the significant role that social platforms now play in our broader interactive process, these apps are, logically, where many people will be sourcing their information on the issue. As such, it's good to see Facebook and Twitter working to monitor relevant mentions and trends, and stop any misleading information in its tracks, while the efforts on this front may also point to evolving processes, which could be used to limit the reach of misinformation more broadly.
That could be particularly important in the upcoming US Presidential Election race. For example, in the wake of the 2016 US Election, researchers uncovered "huge, inter-connected Twitter bot networks", with the largest of them incorporating some 500,000 fake accounts. Those networks were found, predominantly, to be retweeting pro-Trump messages, thereby increasing his share of voice and boosting his messages over his opponents. More recently, a network of Twitter bots was found to be spreading misinformation about the Australian bushfire crisis, amplifying anti-climate change conspiracy theories in opposition to established facts.
If Twitter is able to work more proactively to detect and address such, as it's doing for coronavirus tweets, that could reduce this type of misuse - and subsequently, the platform's influence over expanded discussion trends.
And while Twitter's relative share of conversation, in terms of overall usage, is far less than Facebook, where Twitter is particularly relevant is that the people who use Twitter tend to be more proactive about news coverage, and are therefore more likely to become key sources for breaking news discussion, both on and off the platform. As such, Twitter plays a bigger role in the spread of such information than it may seem, which is why addressing misinformation campaigns like this should be a key focus for the platform.
And of course, Facebook has its own issues with misinformation, and fueling conspiracy theories.
Hopefully, their combined efforts on addressing coronavirus misinformation will help both platforms enhance their detection and removal operations, which could lessen the impact of similar misinformation pushes in future events.