Facebook 'fails to clamp down on Covid-19 misinformation in Europe'

Avaaz report says 'America First' policy leaves Europeans exposed

A healthcare worker administers a dose of the Johnson & Johnson Janssen Covid-19 Covid-19 vaccine at the Facebook Inc. headquarters in Menlo Park, California, U.S., on Saturday, April 10, 2021. Facebook converted part of its headquarters into a vaccination clinic for under-served communities. Photographer: Nina Riggio/Bloomberg
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Facebook leaves European users exposed to dangerous conspiracy theories about the pandemic and Covid-19 vaccines with an "America First" policy that fails to clamp down on misinformation in Europe, according to a report by US campaign group Avaaz.

The report says that most of the false content posted in French and Italian was not acted on by Facebook moderators and that the social media platform is typically nearly a week slower to flag misleading content posted in languages other than English.

Spurious posts include claims about Bill Gates and supposed side effects of coronavirus vaccines.

Responding to the report, a Facebook representative told The National that it did not reflect the company's "aggressive steps to fight harmful Covid-19 misinformation in dozens of languages".

Action taken by Facebook included adding warning labels to some misleading posts, and removing others altogether, it said.

But the Avaaz report said 69 per cent of false posts in Italian and 58 per cent of those in French lacked any kind of visible red flag from Facebook.

The same was true of 50 per cent of Portuguese content and 33 per cent of that in Spanish, according to the study.

By contrast, only 29 per cent of English language posts were similarly unmarked, the report said.

“This leaves all users in Europe at a greater risk of seeing and interacting with Covid-19-related misinformation without any fact-checking measures,” it said.

Avaaz said it took Facebook an average of 30 days to label false content in non-English languages, compared with 24 days for English posts.

In addition to bogus claims about Bill Gates, the debunked content included posts which falsely claimed that masks were dangerous or useless.

Posts in Spanish claiming that using masks could lead to cancer or other diseases were seen by more than 100,000 users, the report said.

There were also false posts purporting to contain statements by official health authorities such as the World Health Organisation.

Such posts were dangerous because they could erode trust in official institutions, Avaaz said.

Facebook defends its efforts to curb conspiracy theories

Facebook said the Avaaz report was “based on a small sample of data and does not reflect the work we’ve done to provide authoritative information to people”.

“We’ve removed millions of pieces of content that violate our policies,” a company representative said.

“We’ve also added warning labels to more than 167 million pieces of additional Covid-19 content thanks to our global network of fact-checking partners, which we’ve expanded since the start of the pandemic.

“This unmatched network of over 80 fact-checking partners now covers 60 languages including Spanish, Italian, French and Portuguese.”

Avaaz called for more regulation at an EU level to rein in the spread of misinformation.

Under one proposal, any user who interacted with a false post would later receive a retroactive notification telling them that the information was wrong.

This would “reduce the algorithmic acceleration of misinformation content”, Avaaz said.

Facebook said last month that posts about vaccines would be furnished with links to credible information from the WHO.

WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last year that the world was battling not just the virus but also “the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response”.

Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg was already under pressure before the pandemic over misinformation relating to politics and elections.

In 2018, he apologised at a US Senate hearing for not taking a “broad enough view of our responsibility” with regard to fake news and hate speech.

In January, Facebook suspended Donald Trump's account after violence at the US Capitol carried out in his name by his supporters.

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