In the battle to stop rumors, half-truths and lies about the coronavirus pandemic spreading online, social media giants are relying heavily on a global network of independent fact-checkers.
The results have not been great.
From the Balkans to Brazil, these journalists and researchers — mostly working in isolation at home — have been given access to the companies inner workings, including data about how possible fake posts are performing on the platforms. Scrolling through piles of misinformation, the fact-checkers goal is to debunk as many falsehoods as they can to keep people safe from content that, in the most severe cases, puts lives in jeopardy.
Yet, even as Facebook and Google promote fact-checking networks as a cornerstone of their response to digital misinformation, the organizations doing the work are struggling to keep pace with a wave of falsities connected to COVID-19. Many feel they dont have the tools to do their job, while others worry about colleagues breaking under the strain, according to discussions with members of nine independent fact-checking groups across Europe and the Americas.
Access to the tech giants data — the lifeblood for tracking digital rumors and lies — remains patchy, at best. And while some fact-checking groups are receiving regular payments from social media giants, additional resources, both funds and technical expertise, have come in dribs and drabs. Long hours and attacks by internet trolls, who can easily find debunkers social media handles online, have also taken their toll on fact-checkers mental health.
“Im not holding up well. Its hard to decompress” — Tijana Cvjetićanin, Balkan fact-checker
Above all, groups question if their work is making a difference, given the deluge of posts and videos. What follows is a selection of stories from people on the front line of the global battle to stop the spread of misinformation about COVID-19.
Germany: We are not solving the problem of disinformation.
Till Eckerts days are blurring into one.
Typically, the fact-checker with Correctiv, a German outfit that works closely with both Facebook and Google, wakes up early to carry out his own work, oversee new hires on his team and manage others at home in quarantine. “Its a really hard job to monitor all of this stuff and stay emotionally stable,” he said. “When you stop the work in the evenings, you turn on the TV and what do you see? More coronavirus.”
His team is debunking up to 25 examples of misinformation a day — everything from claims that COVID-19 is a state-made bioweapon to reports that migrants are the main cause of the pandemic. Thats a small figure compared with the millions of social media posts published each day.
Since early March, when the first cases of coronavirus were reported in Europe, Eckert says the daily stream of online falsehoods around the epidemic has turned from a trickle to a flood, with WhatsApp, the internet messenger owned by Facebook, now the main purveyor of rumors in Germany. To combat that, Correctiv created an online portal for the public to submit examples of possible misinformation. The site is now getting roughly 800 submissions a week, a figure that will likely to grow.
Eckert acknowledges its an uphill battle. “The best we can do is to just fact-check more,” he said. “Were trying to provide the best possible truth thats on the internet.”
Bosnia: Weve never seen anything like this before.
The Balkans was already a hive of misinformation, fueled by Russian-backed groups and tricksters looking to make a buck from online clickbait. Then came COVID-19. Tijana Cvjetićanin, a fact-checker whose work covers the region, said shes never seen content go viral so quickly as false rumors connected to the coronavirus. “The numbers are overwhelming,” she said. “Its really frustrating.”
Cvjetićanin said she was struggling to make a dent in the sea of false claims on both Facebook and Youtube, the dominant platforms across the Balkans. In one video viewed more than 175,000 times online, a Serbian trucker claims a vaccine is already available in Russia. Another alleges thousands of American troops are in Europe as part of a coronavirus-related invasion of Russia. Cvjetićanin says shes repeatedly flagged these rumors and others to the social media companies, but has been met with silence. “We give them something and they dont reply,” she said. “If your market isnt important enough, you dont get anywhere.”
Her work also has attracted online trolls that, after seeing her fact-checking work online, have thrown abuse at Cvjetićanin on social media, the hallmark of coordinated attacks from groups tied to Russia. “Im not holding up well,” she said. “Its hard to decompress.”
Spain: Were starting to see politicized misinformation.
Spain was one of the first countries in Europe to go on lockdown, but Clara Jimenez Cruz, co-founder of Maldita.es, said online false reports in the country only started to go viral in mid-March — and misinformation has now skyrocketed since local parties started to blame each other for the ongoing crisis. “Its targeting politicians, she said. “That will continue to grow.”
WhatsApp in Spain has long been fertile ground for half-truths, as roughly a third of locals rely on the internet messenger for news, according to figures from the Reuters Institute. Jimenez Cruz said her fact-checking service, which receives money from Facebook for its work, is now getting up to 2,000 daily submissions from people flagging potential misinformation on WhatsApp, up from 250 queries before the pandemic began.
Still, detecting falsehoods on the messenger isnt a perfect science. Facebook only allows one researcher at a time to access its WhatsApp platform, which allows fact-checkers to send multiple messages to various groups. With Facebook only permitting one smartphone to have the technology installed, Jimenez Cruzs team members are forced to break the nationwide lockdown every few days to share the device between them. “We cant have someone responsible for looking at WhatsApp every day because theyll go crazy,” she said.
Online users have also attacked her sites Facebook page after Malditas work led to the social networking giant supressing content linked to the online anti-vaccine movement. “Were holding up pretty well at our end,” she said. “At the end of the day, were journalists. This is what we like to be doing.”
United States: Were in the heart of a culture war.
Damon Scott jumped from the frying pan into the fire.
As a fellow for FirstDraft, a global fact-checking service set up to help journalists tackle misinformation, he arrived in New York for his initial training last month just as the coronavirus started ravaging the BigRead More – Source