Social media should struggle misinformation in regards to the pandemic

One conspiracy theory suggests that the vaccine is cover for a program to put microchips into people’s heads as part of a money-making conspiracy by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Or so.

The Herald recently surveyed three anti-vaccination groups with a presence on Facebook and found that they had attracted 22,000 likes, a 57 percent growth in the past 12 months.

For too long, social media companies have refused to crack down on misinformation, claiming they are just platforms with no responsibility for what people post. They refused to check facts like mainstream media.

However, following tragedies like the live streaming of the Christchurch Mosque massacre in 2019, Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and others have increasingly accepted the need to curate the content of their pages. Twitter warned of false claims in President Donald Trump’s tweets.

Facebook now says it will remove content that could cause physical harm. It also issues warnings written by outside fact checkers on hundreds of millions of posts that contain dangerous misinformation. It makes it harder to find misinformation by excluding it from search engines.

Facebook blocked celebrity chef Pete Evans, who had 1.8 million followers, who spread anti-vaccination views after posting pro-Donald Trump messages with Nazi pictures.

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However, some experts wonder if they are doing enough. For example, while Facebook shut down Pete Evans’ website, its Instagram subsidiary still lets him share his views.

Social media groups speak out against excessive regulation. They say if they censor posts too aggressively they jeopardize freedom of expression and drive people into dark corners of the internet like 8chan, an online imageboard that hosts global conspiracy theory site Q-Anon.

They also point out that the problem isn’t limited to social media. Misinformation is spread uncritically by many ancient world media. Sky News channels have claimed COVID-19 was a hoax.

Australia has made regulating the problem relatively easy so far, unlike the UK, which has promised to pass a law that will impose heavy fines for disinformation against vaccination. Here, social media companies should regulate themselves. The Australian Communications and Media Authority is developing a voluntary code of conduct, but it will not be available until next year.

Exchanging accurate information with the community will be critical in the coming year. If social media companies don’t keep standards high, tighter regulation may be needed.

Herald editor Lisa Davies writes an exclusive newsletter for subscribers on the week’s most important stories and topics. Sign up here to receive it every Friday.

Since the Herald was first published in 1831, the editors have found it important to give readers a thoughtful view of the topics of the day, with the public interest always first. Elsewhere we try to cover a variety of views without endorsing any of them.

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