Facebook Fails to Staunch Coronavirus Misinformation

The social media giant in April affixed warning labels on 50 million pieces of content

As Mark Zuckerberg this week detailed the results of the company's latest Community Standards Enforcement Report, he also revealed that Facebook is being inundated with coronavirus misinformation and disinformation—and that the company has been struggling to stop it.

Zuckerberg, who said he was proud of the work Facebook's content moderation teams have done, also acknowledged that it's not stopping enough COVID-19 misinformation. 

"Our effectiveness has certainly been impacted by having less human review during COVID-19, and we do unfortunately expect to make more mistakes until we're able ramp everything back up," he said.

The report, released Tuesday, says that improvements in the company's machine learning systems helped Facebook remove 68% more hate posts in the first three months of 2020 than it did from October to December 2019. These same systems are responsible for detecting 90% of hate speech posts before they're posted by Facebook users, the company claims. Between the company's human moderators and automated systems, Facebook says it acted on 9.6 million pieces of hateful content in the first quarter of 2020, up from 5.7 million pieces of hateful content in the fourth quarter of 2019.

On Instagram, the detection rate increased from 57.6% in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 68.9% in the first quarter of 2020, with 175,000 pieces of content removed—35,200 more than the previous quarter.

The company also published a separate blog post detailing how it has handled COVID-19 misinformation thus far: In April, it placed warning labels on 50 million pieces of content, based on 7,500 articles by 60 independent fact-checking organizations; and since March 1, Facebook has removed more than 2.5 million pieces of content for attempting to fraudulently sell face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes, and COVID-19 test kits.

But because Facebook does not allow its human content moderators (who just won a $52 million lawsuit over mental health problems developed from reviewing that content) to access potentially sensitive Facebook data from their home computers, the company has been relying on artificial intelligence systems more than before. 

Facebook's numbers are impossible to verify since the company does not allow independent audits of its systems. And in the age of COVID-19, that takes on added importance, say experts, since medical misinformation can encourage people to take health risks that put their lives at stake.

Look no further than the viral spread of the "Plandemic" video, which asserts a fake COVID-19 narrative, and has been reposted to YouTube nearly as fast as the company can take it down for violating its COVID-19 misinformation standards. Facebook explained in a blog post from its AI team what makes automatic detection of misinformation challenging, an assertion that Bhaskar Chakravorti, senior associate dean of international business and finance at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, agreed with in an emailed statement.

"Facebook has done more than the other social media companies in controlling misinformation by turning to fact checking organizations," he wrote, but cautioned that the company is still missing "about 40 percent of misinformation" on its platform.

One way to reduce the impact of misinformation and organized disinformation from political sources would be to label advertisements and posts from political organizations, says Pablo Breuer, co-founder and vice president of the Cognitive Security Collaborative. Misinformation stands out because it's often promoted nearly simultaneously by accounts with no connection, and because of the attention it receives: Legitimate news has a baseline signal that "peaks" because it's newsworthy, then "degrades" because people have seen it, he says. 

"What happens in a lot of misinformation is that you get multiple peaks, and you get those peaks because there are bots that are putting it out there to different audiences," Breuer says. "We've known for a long time that the propagation of misinformation is different from regular information."

Ultimately, the challenge Facebook faces is existential: Its services depend on users sharing information, and the more they share, the more ads the social network can show you, he notes.

"Anything that makes you react in a visceral, emotional way, instead of a cognitive way, is good for traffic and good for the bottom line of these companies. It's detrimental to them to limit this."


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