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Are tech giants doing enough to combat fake news?

  • 2020 has seen not only a global health pandemic, but a global epidemic of fakes news. Now, the tech giants are trying to combat this, but should it have been tackled long before the present?


    Since August, WhatsApp has been piloting a new feature that allows users to fact-check viral texts.

    If a user has been sent a message that has been forwarded through a chain of five or more people, a magnifying glass icon will appear next to it and will thus allow the user to search for its contents online quickly.

    The aim is to allow the individual to reveal fake news or common conspiracy theories.

    Whatsapp used an example of the feature with a viral message that claimed ““drinking fresh boiled garlic water will cure Covid-19.”

    In the screenshot, it shows a web search that brings up three fact-checking website flagging this claim as false.

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    Back in May, Twitter also announced it would be putting warning signs on tweets containing deceptive information regarding Covid-19, to "limit the spread of potentially harmful and misleading content.”

    The micro-blogging site also trialled a prompt in June that asked people if they really wanted to retweet a link that they had not tapped on.

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    In a statement, the social media giant said: “Sharing an article can spark conversation, so you may want to read it before you tweet it. To help promote informed discussion, we’re testing a new prompt on Android – when you retweet an article that you haven’t opened on Twitter, we may ask if you’d like to open it first.”

    In 2016, a study from computer scientists at Columbia University and Microsoft found that 59% of links posted on Twitter are never clicked. 

    Facebook has come under the most criticism for continuing to be a “superspreader” of fake news, especially amid the pandemic and upcoming US election.

    In an interview with USA Today, the social media titan’s head of global affairs and comms, Nick Clegg said: “One of the most important antidotes to misinformation is good information. We certainly have worked very closely with the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) and others to make sure that we are constantly providing a source of reliable, authoritative, credible information.

    “And we're proud of the work of that. Separately, of course, we remove content related to vaccines or anything else where it poses an impending and immediate real-world harm.”

    Just last week, Facebook said it had removed hundreds of coordinated fake accounts linked to military in China and the Philippines that were interfering in the politics of the Philippines and the US.

    RELATED: Why fake news isn’t everyone else’s fault

    In June, Facebook also launched a media literacy campaign in partnership with factcheckers, FullFact in a bid to stop fake news from going viral.

    The campaign directs people to a website called and asks users key questions about what they see online to help recognise and quash false news claims, such as: "Where's it from?" and "What's missing?"

    But are all these new tech features to nullify nonce news enough? Or is “too little too late” as some Facebook critics across the UK, Europe, Africa and the Middle East have claimed?

    Step forward? Or too late?

    Gerard Donnelly is a marketing automation expert from Northern Ireland. He also founded LegitimateApp, in which users can create an electronically verified profile (or digital passport) which acts as a source of truth for all their online activity and content.

    Gerard told Sync NI that he created Legitimate “out of frustration at the amount of fake news and disinformation being spread online”.

    He said: “It annoyed me that global events such as Brexit and the 2016 US election were greatly affected by fake news and disinformation. The impact it had will be felt for generations to come.  I also noticed many of my friends and family who I considered sensible and educated would regularly share fake content without realising it.

    “At that point I started looking into more because I felt no one else seemed to be tackling it.”

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    Gerard noted that “it's great that tech giants are now focusing on fake news and how to combat it, as their platforms act as a catalyst, accelerating the spread of fake news at a rate that was not thought about a decade ago.

    “Due to their massive user base and geographical spread, a fake or misleading story can literally be seen by millions of people around the world in minutes. It's therefore only right that they try and balance that power with responsibility.

    “I'm not saying they should be responsible for fact checking and deciding what content people should see, but they should use their technology to give people the tools to make better informed decisions.”

    RELATED: How is AI helping throughout the Covid-19 pandemic?

    He thinks “things are heading in a positive direction” and concluded: “There are multiple companies now working in this space and over the coming years I think the ability to spread fake news will be greatly reduced.

    “People will always be able to push highly opinionated narratives and propaganda, but technology will make people more aware of what’s happening and less susceptible to it.”

    However, others feel these efforts should have been put in place long ago.

    Carl Bergstrom has written a book about misinformation and is also a University of Washington professor of biology.

    He said: “They’ve built this whole ecosystem that is all about engagement, allows viral spread, and hasn’t ever put any currency on accuracy.

    “Now all of a sudden, we have a serious global crisis, and they want to put some Band-Aids on it. It’s better than not acting but praising them for doing it is like praising Philip Morris for putting filters on cigarettes.”

    RELATED: Facebook threatens to block sharing of news over advertising row in Australia

    Research by Oxford’s Reuters Institute found that 88% of 225 false coronavirus claims had appeared on social media platforms, compared with 9% on television or 8% in news outlets.

    In April 2020, the Guardian reported that conspiracy theories linking 5G to the pandemic had resulted in threats and harassment against telecom engineers and petrol bomb attacks on telephone poles.

    As we ease out of lockdown now, but feel the looming possibility that a second wave will clamp down again at any moment, only time will tell how much fake news has contributed to the coronavirus crisis’ impact, and if tech giants can actually make a difference.

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    About the author

    Niamh is a Sync NI writer with a previous background of working in FinTech and financial crime. She has a special interest in sports and emerging technologies. To connect with Niamh, feel free to send her an email or connect on Twitter.

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