Wednesday 19 August 2020 1:47 pm

Facebook is a ‘major threat’ to public health, report warns

Facebook’s failure to halt the spread of coronavirus misinformation makes it a “major threat” to public health, a damning new report has warned.

Research by activist group Avaaz found health misinformation relating to the pandemic was viewed 3.8bn times on the social media site in the last year.

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Just 16 per cent of all misinformation analysed in the study carried a warning label, with the remaining 84 per cent remaining online without a warning.

Facebook has vowed to crack down on conspiracy theories and misleading content linked to Covid-19 amid concerns inaccurate information was spreading unchecked on the platform.

A company spokesperson said the findings of the report did not “reflect the steps we’ve taken to keep it from spreading on our service”.

Facebook said it had applied warning labels to 98m pieces of content and removed a further 7m between April and June.

The site added that it had also directed more than 2bn people to resources from official health authorities.

But the report warned Facebook was not doing enough to tackle the sheer quantity of false information online and pointed the finger at the site’s algorithm, which it said “gives an advantage to the emotive, divisive content that characterises health misinformation”.

‘Damning indictment’

The study found that the top 10 offending websites for spreading misinformation had almost four times as many estimated views on Facebook than information official bodies such as the WHO.

The spread of coronavirus-related misinformation peaked in April, hitting an estimated 460m views.

“This suggests that just when citizens needed credible health information the most, and while Facebook was trying to proactively raise the profile of authoritative health institutions on the platform, its algorithm was potentially undermining these efforts and helping to boost content from health misinformation spreading websites at a staggering rate,” the report stated.

Damian Collins, former culture select committee chair and co-founder of fact checking service Infotagion, said the findings were “yet another damning indictment of Facebook’s capacity to amplify false or misleading health information during the pandemic”.

Among the worst misinformation identified in the report was an article claiming that a polio vaccination programme backed by Bill Gates led to the paralysis of almost half a million children in India.

Another falsely claimed that the American Medical Association was encouraging doctors and US hospitals to overcount Covid-19 deaths.

Avaaz said public pages remained one of the main drivers of misleading content, accounting for 43 per cent of the total estimated views.

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It also identified the 42 main offending pages, which are followed by more than 28m people and generated an estimated 800m views.

Avaaz called on Facebook to provide all users who have seen misinformation with independently fact-checked corrections and called for misinformation posts to be downgraded within the platform’s algorithm.