Disinformation isn’t just a political phenomenon that rears it ugly head during elections. Lies and conspiracy theories are peddled every day on social media, often funded and fuelled by state actors. US State Department officials tasked with combating Russian disinformation have recently confirmed that thousands of Russian-linked social media accounts have launched a coordinated effort to spread alarm about the new coronavirus, disrupting global efforts to fight the epidemic. This campaign has focused efforts on peddling conspiracy theories that the US government is responsible for the current Coronavirus outbreak.
“Russia’s intent is to sow discord and undermine US institutions and alliances from within, including through covert and coercive malign influence campaigns,” said Philip Reeker, the acting Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia.
Existing policy on social media companies allow this harmful activity to happen. Though social media companies have acknowledged these threats, as recently as October last year, Facebook stated that it will not be monitoring the truth of statements made on its platform. Some companies are, however, being more proactive. Last week, NBC News reported that Twitter is experimenting with adding brightly coloured labels directly beneath lies and misinformation posted by politicians and other public figures. In this version, disinformation or misleading information posted by public figures would be corrected directly beneath a tweet by fact-checkers and journalists who are verified on the platform and possibly by other users who would participate in a new “community reports” feature, which the demo claims is “like Wikipedia.”
This is an encouraging development. We will have to wait and see what the impact is of this new policy if – and when – it is rolled out across the platform. It remains to be seen if it will be used to target all disinformation, not just that of an overtly political nature. What we do know is that if tools like this are to be useful, they can’t just focus on one piece of the puzzle. Lies on social media platforms that are sown to stoke distrust can be equally damaging during and outside of elections.
It’s great to see Twitter wants to tackle this. It’s now on Facebook to follow suit. Having shown no intent to do so, governments must now make such requirements statutory.