Facebook steps up fight against virus fakery

London (AFP) –


Facebook announced Thursday its many users will see tailor-made warnings highlighting facts about the coronavirus pandemic, after being accused of failing to counter the spread of outlandish conspiracy theories.

The leading social media platform has already been publishing fact-checking articles about the global outbreak through its partnerships with media organisations, including one with Agence France-Presse.

"We will also soon begin showing messages in News Feed to people who previously engaged with harmful misinformation related to COVID-19 that we've since removed, connecting them with accurate information," chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement.

The messages will pop up in the relevant language for users who have previously clicked on or shared virus disinformation, and point them to authoritative sources like the World Health Organisation.

The new service goes beyond warnings that Facebook says it slapped on about 40 million posts related to the virus in March alone, following reviews of the posts by independent fact-checkers such as AFP.

"When people saw those warning labels, 95 percent of the time they did not go on to view the original content," Zuckerberg said.

Another new programme called Get The Facts will highlight coronavirus articles on Facebook written by fact-checking partners.

Among recent articles by AFP's Fact Check service, one countered the idea that garlic is an effective treatment against COVID-19. Another refuted theories that the virus is somehow rooted in 5G telecommunications.

Facebook said that on its main platform and on Instagram, more than 350 million of its two billion users had now clicked through to a dedicated coronavirus information centre since its launch last month.

The company has also limited the number of times users can forward messages on its WhatsApp calling and texting service, to curb disinformation.

- Sceptical welcome -

Well before the current crisis, Facebook had been under pressure from governments and regulators for peddling fake news and violating users' privacy.

European Commission vice president Vera Jourova welcomed the new measures, which she noted came after a series of contacts between Facebook and EU representatives.

"However, we will need more transparency and better access to data for researchers to fully verify the scope and impact of false content and to be able to assess Facebook's actions from the perspectives of both public health and fundamental rights," she said.

The enhanced warnings were also welcomed by online activist group Avaaz, which like other critics has accused Facebook of acting sluggishly even when users' posts clearly impart fake or harmful content.

"Facebook sits at the epicentre of the misinformation crisis. But the company is turning a critical corner today to clean up this toxic information ecosystem," said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.

He called on Facebook to do more to ensure factual messages are delivered consistently in languages other than English, and to take down problematic posts far more quickly.

"People at risk from measles misinformation, anti-vaccine misinformation, or political disinformation also deserve protection," Quran added.

AFP currently works with Facebook's fact-checking programme in more than 30 countries and 12 languages.

Under the programme, which started in December 2016, Facebook pays to use fact checks from organisations including media outlets and specialised fact checkers on its platform and on Instagram.

Under another partnership announced Thursday, Facebook users in France will be offered new educational videos about the coronavirus made by AFP journalists.

"It is essential we continue to help the public identify reliable and trustworthy sources of information at such a crucial time," AFP's Global News Director Phil Chetwynd said.