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'Infodemic' Of Coronavirus Fake News And Scams Plaguing Social Media

Facebook and Twitter are battling mountains of scams, misinformation and racist hoaxes amid the coronavirus crisis, as crooks and far-right groups seek to exploit the pandemic.

Multiple hoaxes, large and small, have been perpetrated across social media in recent weeks, as global concern over the coronavirus pandemic escalated. It has seen the major social networks mobilise an unprecedented response, with a combination of stamping out hoaxes, heavily promoting legitimate health resources, and even pouring money into mainstream media newsrooms to support trusted reporting.

It comes as the federal eSafety Commission warned Australians to be wary of misinformation online.

"Along with a pandemic, we are now facing an infodemic of bogus information and scams online," eSafety Commissioner, Julie Inman Grant, told 10 daily.

Twitter and Facebook are taking action on coronavirus hoaxes. Image: Getty

Both Twitter and Facebook told 10 daily of their efforts to rid their platforms of misinformation. Multiple racist hoaxes have spread -- particularly in highly-active coronavirus-focused Facebook groups -- alleging people of Asian appearance had been hoarding supermarket supplies.

One of these, which was shared many thousands of times last weekend, claimed a Melbourne warehouse was gathering mountains of groceries and sanitary products, to send to China. Victoria Police investigated, and said the report was "false".

Image: Facebook

Another hoax, shared by a YouTube page hosting far-right content, showed people buying vast quantities of baby formula. The video, posted last week, was in fact many months old and not related to coronavirus grocery shortages, but it has been shared by dozens of conservative and far-right groups who claimed the video was more recently captured, generating thousands of -- largely racist or violent -- comments and nearly 450,000 views.

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A Facebook company spokesperson told 10 daily it was "focused on stopping hoaxes and harmful misinformation", and would donate $1 million to newsrooms around the world, and $2m to fact-checking resources.

"We're removing false claims and conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organisations," a spokesperson said, citing false viral claims that drinking bleach could kill the virus.

"We're blocking people from running ads that try to exploit the situation -- for example, claiming that their product can cure the disease. And we’ve banned ads and commerce listings selling medical masks, hand sanitiser, surface disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 test kits in ads and commerce listings."

It comes after agriculture and disaster management minister, David Littleproud, last week called out eBay and Facebook as "hosts for parasites" for previously allowing ads for such essential goods.

Facebook
Image: Getty

Twitter said it is also donating to journalists and fact-checkers. The company is sending US$500,000 each to Committee to Protect Journalists and the International Women’s Media Foundation to "ensure these organisations can continue their work in the face of new economic strains", said Kara Hinesley, head of public policy at Twitter Australia.

"As is standard, we will remove any pockets of smaller coordinated attempts to distort or inorganically influence the conversation," she told 10 daily.

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Swisher said Twitter too had banned ads trying to exploit coronavirus concerns, as well as expanding rules to ban people from posting messages that deny expert advice, encourage fake or ineffective treatments, or falsely claim to be giving expert guidance.

To that end, both companies have also overhauled the look of their main pages, prominently featuring links to information and advice from the World Health Organisation and local health authorities in each country.

A box featured on Facebook event listings, warning about avoiding large gatherings. Image: Facebook

For instance, Facebook has inserted a fact box at the top of event listings, warning users that people should "avoid large gatherings"; while searching for 'coronavirus' on Twitter in Australia delivers links to the WHO and the federal health department, as does searching the same term on Instagram. Facebook has also rolled out a "Coronavirus (COVID-19) Information Centre" in several countries,  sharing latest news and support resources.

"We’re giving the WHO as many free ads as they need for their coronavirus response -- and we'll give support and millions more in ad credits to other organisations," Facebook said.

Twitter is also giving free ad space to organisations like UNICEF Australia, Reachout, Lifeblood Australia and OzHarvest to share public health messages and resources.

Twitter's #KnowTheFacts campaign pushes users to legitimate sources of information, when they search for 'coronavirus'. Image: Twitter

Inman Grant said the eSafety office had "been in contact with some of the social companies about misinformation", and said they were working to address the issue.

“Our experience in other areas of online harm, for example online child sexual abuse material, demonstrates the tech companies are more effective when they work in unison," she said.

Twitter's efforts come under its #KnowTheFacts initiative, which began in January. Swisher said Twitter had partnered with health authorities in many countries, aiming to bring people "credible, authoritative content at the top of your timeline."

"We are also pushing the most important content to the top of our search results and in your home timelines," she said.

Searching 'coronavirus' on Instagram returns results for legitimate health authorities. Image: Instagram

Swisher also said Twitter is working with global public health authorities to identify and give 'blue tick' verification to more legitimate health experts, so as to ensure regular users know who is speaking with authority.

Inman Grant said such verification could be important, and urged Australians to check what news sources they were listening to.

“The best advice I can give to Australians is stick to reliable news sources, or government websites such as health.gov.au," she said.

"If you do consume your news via social media, again, make sure you get it from trusted news sites and look for the blue tick to make sure it’s verified."

The eSafety Commission has produced material for parents, teachers, seniors and young people around coronavirus. For more information, see the eSafety website.