Miracle remedies to conspiracy theories, disinformation around the new coronavirus abounds on digital platforms, which struggle to cope as crises of this order facilitate the spread of false information.
Sesame oil to immunize, Chinese exodus, a virus designed by a laboratory in Wuhan … So many false rumors that have spread in recent weeks on social networks.
“The majority of the actors behind this fake news don’t care whether you believe it or not. They just use this epidemic as an ideal vehicle to achieve their ends, whether it be generating income or generating distrust, “notes Carl Bergstrom, a professor at the University of Washington and an online disinformation specialist.
Some players want to sell products, and try to pretend that cannabis makes it possible to immunize against the virus, for example. Others seek to generate views and clicks, which generate advertising revenue.
“And then you have operations underway to weaken democracies, and give the impression that no one can be trusted,” adds Carl Bergstrom. “This is the strategy of the garden hose (flooding with propaganda, editor’s note), frequently used by Russia, in particular”.
US officials told AFP last week that thousands of accounts linked to Russia on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were spreading anti-American misinformation about the new coronavirus to sow contention. Moscow has denied it.
– “Massive Infomedia” –
Disseminated theories include the idea that the virus was created by the United States as a reminder of the KGB’s attempts to pretend, during the Cold War, that HIV was an invention of American scientists.
Once introduced, conspiracy theories spread all the better as uncertainty reigns over the origin of the disease and the public worries and seek explanations, preferably on networks.
At the beginning of February, the WHO qualified as “massive Infomedia” the overabundance of inaccurate information on the subject, which complicates its task and that of the health authorities.
False information can lead to panic movements, such as a rush to surgical masks, crowded emergency services, or, on the contrary, people with symptoms who prefer not to report themselves for fear of imaginary retaliatory measures.
To coordinate the fight against this “Infomedia”, WHO gathered ten days ago representatives of major technology groups at Facebook headquarters in Silicon Valley.
E-commerce giant Amazon has set out to remove products that falsely claim to cure the new coronavirus or protect it from infection, according to the American chain CNBC.
Facebook, Twitter, and Google (including YouTube) have also strengthened their existing policies, which include removing content that may be harmful to the public, ads for dangerous fake remedies, for example, and highlighting reliable messages (like those WHO).
– “A million moles” –
The dominant social network also relies on “Third-party fact-checking”, its third-party verification program developed since 2016. Facebook pays around sixty media around the world, general or specialized – including AFP – for the use of their “fact-checks” on its platform and on Instagram.
The network greatly reduces the audience for videos or articles labeled as false by these external auditors.
But Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West, co-authors of a forthcoming book on disinformation, see these measures as “bandages”. They denounce the “hypocrisy” of platforms, whose algorithms and advertising business models promote the spread of sensationalist or misleading content.
“It’s like the mole game (” whac-a-mole “), except that there are a million moles coming out from all sides and 5 people trying to smash them,” notes Jevin West, a computer science teacher.
Other academics who have studied the phenomena of disinformation during the recent Zika virus and yellow fever crises in Brazil also believe that fact-checking efforts may prove ineffective, even counterproductive.
In their study published in January in “Science Advances,” they conclude that “talking about false information can increase their familiarity and make it even more plausible”.