Social media companies are struggling to contain a wave of coronavirus disinformation. Volunteers have entered the breach who are fighting to prevent rumors, bad advice and conspiracy theories from going viral.
Rachael Hogg is currently juggling her intense work as a project manager and teaching her nine-year-old daughter from her home in the market town of Morpeth, about 15 miles north of Newcastle.
But if that’s not enough, it also deletes 50 misleading messages about the coronavirus from the local Facebook group it manages every day.
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Volunteers at the forefront of information
Morpeth Matters it has 22,000 members, substantially more than the actual population of the city. The numbers of the group have increased by former residents and people from surrounding villages who turn to Facebook for local information.
“The group was overwhelmed by alarmism, speculation about what’s in supermarkets, conspiracy theories and misleading posts,” explains Rachael after a long day of school at home and working around her kitchen table.
In normal times she would be out socializing with friends or doing official business – he is a city councilor. But he is currently spending what he calls “an unhealthy amount of time” online.
“Someone once told me, if it’s on Morpeth Matters, it must be true,” he says. “I think people are more likely to believe what’s published in local Facebook groups because it seems to come from their community.”
Rachael had to dismiss fake tank posts on the streets of Newcastle, unreliable information on how the virus spreads, and a questionable post attributed to an unnamed “NHS worker”. That post contained a mix of accurate information and potentially panic-inducing phrases (“don’t leave home for bread or anything!”) That doesn’t align with current guidelines.
Rachael says that misleading information online has led people into the city to rush to supermarkets, panic over their neighbors and flood local schools with phone calls.
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Social media problems
Volunteer moderators such as Rachael intervened while staff from large social media companies were affected by the coronavirus.
Facebook says it is operating with a “small and remote workforce”, so it is prioritizing the study of the most harmful content.
Likewise, YouTube and Twitter rely less on human moderators and more on automatic reporting tools and artificial intelligence.
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Concern in Walthamstow
Waqas Hussain, born and raised in Walthamstow in north east London, is an accountant with four children. He is also moderator of Walthamstow Residents NEWS, which has over 28,000 members.
“Misleading messages are discarded and debunking is posted,” he says. “No fake news allowed.”
Waqas says he feels “a sense of duty to ensure that only factual information is published,” and then investigates the posts in a way that is not unlike professional fact-checkers.
“I will spend some time looking for the facts and then I will write a long post about it. There is everything [of bad information] – posts about coronavirus severity, fined stores and links from unscrupulous websites. All these messages are deleted as soon as I see them. “
This includes sharing YouTube videos about a conspiracy theory that mistakenly connects 5G to the coronavirus. Proponents of the theory have been behind a series of attacks on the mobile phone infrastructure.
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Between games of board games with his children, Waqas recently investigated a photo of a fake message claiming to be from the government and threatening fines if people leave the house, even for essential goods. This too has been canceled.
Swindon in Swindon
Another Facebook group, Swindon Community Notice Board, has over 18,000 members.
It could have become a hotbed of disinformation if it hadn’t been for its moderators, Debra Collins and Graham Stobbs. They say they reject around 150 misleading messages every day.
49-year-olds usually organize musical events together. Army veteran Graham, who has post-traumatic stress disorder, is particularly busy as he is using his training time to train for a kayaking challenge to raise money for a mental health organization.
But at the moment, Debra and Graham claim to be distracted “all day every day” by the group. Thousands of members have joined since the pandemic began.
“We work closely with our local authorities and local parliamentarians to ensure the sharing of consistent and correct information,” says Debra.
Many of the posts they reject are scary “from unofficial sources that later turned out to be false news,” he says.
Beyond “fake news”
The best of BBC reports, education and training to help you understand the challenges posed by misinformation and fake news.
A similar thing is happening in a local Facebook group in Stoke-on-Trent.
A medical receptionist, who heads the group but asked not to be named because of her job, told BBC News that it prevented misleading medical information from reaching the rest of the group.
“A post encouraged everyone to try to get inhalers used by asthma sufferers to fight the virus. This puts horrible pressure on the NHS as patients call us requesting inhalers that are not only useless, but have no right to be prescribed.” .
Local surgery in the area also had to make a statement due to the number of people who contacted them after hearing fake news on Facebook about the imaginary “rescue packages” of the coronavirus.
In a crisis like this, some people are trying to intervene wherever possible, even in the fight against online disinformation.
Illustrations by Gerard Groves
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