MSPs call on social media firms to crack down on coronavirus misinfo

Social media companies are being asked to ensure their platforms are not used to spread Covid-19 misinformation after The Ferret revealed Scottish Facebook groups set up to discuss the pandemic had posts with false remedies, dubious medical advice and conspiracy theories.

Dozens of Scottish Covid-19 Facebook groups have been formed in recent weeks, with most appearing to share factual information from the government, local authorities and prominent media outlets, as well as help being organised for isolated and vulnerable people.

Some Facebook groups, however, have seen members share what one expert described as potentially “damaging” content in amongst more reliable posts and sources of information.

We are trying to fact check as many claims about the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak as we can. If you see anything you think we should check please email us at factcheck@theferret.scot

In recent weeks Facebook committed, along with other social media and tech firms, to clamp down on online misinformation around the Covid-19 pandemic. The company’s head of health has also written about how it is “supporting the global public health community’s work to keep people safe and informed.”

Yet The Ferret found dozens of erroneous posts, many of which we have fact checked including claims that hot air from a hair dryer can neutralise the virus and that Covid-19 has enabled the government to “scare the public” and control the population.

Many of these posts were shared and commented on by people apparently unaware they were engaging with false or misleading information.

Politician have expressed concern over the spread of misinformation.

SNP MSP Tom Arthur said people should “take extra care to ensure that they only share information from trusted sources” and that “social media companies must ensure that their platforms are not used to spread false information, which could endanger lives or cause panic and alarm.”

Scottish Conservatives shadow culture secretary Maurice Golden said: “A person heeding the advice of a rogue source on this matter could literally be the difference between life and death. He added that “for some time big social media companies have vowed to crack down on fake news – now would be a good time to see that pledge through.”

Fact check: debunking myths about coronavirus

A Facebook spokesperson told The Ferret that “harmful misinformation is not allowed” on its platforms, adding it has “partnered with the NHS to connect people directly from their news feed and search bars, to the latest official NHS guidance around coronavirus.”

On 23 March warnings appeared atop some Covid-19 groups for people to “see the latest coronavirus info” from the NHS.

But one post, which appeared in a Scottish group and stated that Russian president Vladimir Putin had released hundreds of lions and tigers to force people to stay home, had been labelled as false by fact checkers.

Some posts found and highlighted by The Ferret were removed shortly after we approached Facebook for comment. Yet others remained visible at time of publication.

On the “Coronavirus Scotland” group, which has 2500 members, a video shared claimed the military was arriving en masse at Edinburgh Airport.

Another post stated that gargling water can halt the spread of the virus. One user even shared a video where it was suggested the virus could have been designed to eliminate people who are less likely to contribute to society.

The similarly named “Corona Virus Scotland” group contained a post from a user who said they had “reliable sources” telling them the UK would be put on lockdown on 19 March. Another poster shared false information claiming it was from Vienna where doctors had found many of those who had died from coronavirus had ibuprofen in their system.

Social media companies must ensure that their platforms are not used to spread false information, which could endanger lives or cause panic and alarm. Tom Arthur MSP

The Ferret contacted people running these groups on Facebook Messenger but did not receive a response before publication. However, the Corona Virus Scotland group appeared to have been taken down shortly after the Ferret approached it for comment. One of the administrators of that page had previously told the group that false and offensive content would be removed.

The Ferret also found a small number of posts sharing incorrect news about cures posted on more local Covid-19 pages, although these were far fewer in number.

Away from the groups, dozens of Scottish-based Facebook users posted last week that the army was present in Strathclyde Country Park, a false rumour that even made it to First Minister’s Questions.

Julii Brainard, a research fellow from the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School who co-authored a 2019 study on misleading information during infectious disease outbreaks, said people should be wary of information that does not come “from a highly credible, institutional source.”

When talking and communicating online, she added, “we must make it clear that our ponderings are just musings not proven facts.”

Sarah Pederson, professor of media and communication at Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, with an expertise in social media, added that misinformation has the potential to undermine official messages about the virus and how to halt its spread.

Meanwhile, Bissie Anderson, co-organiser of the misinformation summit and knowledge exchange, MisinfoConX Scotland, said false claims could be “disorienting” and have a potentially “damaging effect on public health,” should people take incorrect information on board.

As with Covid-19 itself, the issue of misinformation is far from exclusive to Scotland. Numerous posts claiming the army was active in London were also exposed as false on 19 March.

Some conspiracy videos posted in Scottish Facebook groups also appeared to have been shared from external sources that originated from individuals based in the United States.

The Ferret showed Facebook a link of a North American page offering cures, products and advice on how to prevent contracting the virus.

This post appeared to have been removed from the platform a short time later.

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