Social media took too long to address COVID-19 misinformation, experts say

Shruti Shekar
·Telecom & Tech Reporter
·4-min read
Bangkok, Thailand - August 22, 2019 : iPhone 7 showing its screen with TikTok and other social media application icons.

Years of vaccine misinformation online has led to a perfect storm of disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine, despite recent measures some social media platforms have taken.

Last week, popular video-sharing app TikTok announced it would provide users with “access to trusted and authoritative information” about the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We are updating our information hub in-app so that when people search for vaccine information in-app, they will be directed to trusted information about the vaccine from respected experts,” a press release from TikTok said. The hub rolled out globally on Dec. 17.

Tara Wadhwa, director of policy for U.S. and Canadian safety at TikTok, said in an interview the company has taken combatting misinformation about the coronavirus seriously since January 2020. Combatting misinformation has always been its policy, she said.

“With this new refresh, we are both trying to remove the content on the platform that is misinformation, while evaluating authoritative voices,” she said.

TikTok added that it was combatting misinformation on the COVID-19 vaccine now because vaccine information was just approved and the company is able to direct users to trusted sources.

Ramona Pringle, a tech expert and associate professor at Ryerson University, said despite these efforts, social media platforms have “been really slow over the last decade to take action.”

“It’s led to this perfect storm where there’s so much uncertainty around the new COVID-19 vaccine and so much uncertainty around COVID in general,” she said. “People are searching for answers, they are going online, but what you’ve got is this sort of sludge of misinformation that’s built up online over the last decade that’s fuelling the fire.”

Pringle said in an interview that a “data void” has occurred, where researchers or scientists have been publishing content in journals instead of “sticky viral content for Instagram or YouTube,” and regular people are creating content that tends to be of the “other persuasion.”

“The reality is 18 months ago, if you went searching for vaccines on the majority of social networks, the results would autofill into dangerous territory, into anti-vaxxer territory,” she said. “So what happens is that when you go and search for vaccines online, there’s no actual equal amount of scientifically valid information and misleading information.”

Social media platforms knew vaccine was coming, should have worked faster: Johnson

Last week, Twitter also announced its plan to combat misinformation on COVID-19, saying it will remove harmful and misleading information and “label Tweets that contain potentially misleading information about the vaccines.”

A Twitter Canada spokesperson said these efforts have not been limited to COVID-19, but to all vaccines and began in 2019.

Facebook said that it uses independent third-party fact-checkers to review news stories, and that in early December it started to remove false claims about vaccines on the platform and on Instagram.

Matthew Johnson, director of education at MediaSmarts, said in an interview that social media platforms have taken too long to address ways to combat misinformation, knowing that a COVID-19 vaccine was going to come.

“The fact that we are seeing social networks, in December, saying they’re taking action about misinformation about vaccines, really shows that they will often put this off as late as possible,” he said. “It’s also an indicator that generally speaking, online platforms, not just social networks, prefer to do things on a case-by-case basis, rather than making changes to the architecture of their systems to reduce this problem overall.”

Johnson added that because there has been so much misinformation, it has also led to “trust compression” where people see all sources, reliable or not, as less trustworthy.

“As a result, people are particularly vulnerable to emotional appeals and to confirmation bias,” he said. He added that if someone sees two sources both equally trustworthy, a reader will likely believe the story that gives them the more “visceral reaction” or the story that confirms what they already believe.

Removing misinformation is a game of whack-a-mole: Pringle

The challenge that social media sites now have is trying to manage the content that is perceived as misleading or fake, Pringle said.

“It’s a game of whack-a-mole. Social media sites take down a piece of content, but if someone wants it up there, someone else will post it. Information has become product and people think that there are people seeking out their products, whether or not it’s real, whether or not it’s harmful, they’re going to continue to perpetuate it,” she said.

Wadhwa agreed, adding that this is “the most challenging” aspect of social media.

“It’s a challenge we face as an industry to be better coordinated amongst each other,” she said. “I think it is a challenge but we’re trying to come up with the strategies to mitigate that and there’s no silver bullet, we’re going to have a range of strategies to tackle this problem.”

Wadhwa added that in January 2020 TikTok invested in an investigations team to sieve through content. She said that artificial intelligence is used to help find content that is misleading, which is then sent to real humans who validate the information.