Social media giants must make extent of misinformation public to help fight coronavirus

  • Media Release
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Reset Australia formerly operated under the name Responsible Technology Australia.

Social media giants must be transparent about the extent of coronavirus misinformation spreading on their platforms so the public and authorities can better fight it, says Responsible Technology Australia.

Amit Singh, director for Responsible Technology Australia, said the first step in the fight against dangerous information would be a comprehensive and current list of the top 100 viral pieces of information about coronavirus.

“Right now we only have anecdotal evidence that misinformation about coronavirus, including instances of fake public health warnings, is spreading among some groups online,” said Mr Singh. “If we can’t see the scale of the problem, we can’t even begin to figure out how to tackle it.”

“We need platforms to publish a live list of the top 100 most shared pieces of content about coronavirus. The platforms could include demographic context about where it is being shared and also flag if this content is coming from bad or foreign actors. This information could sit alongside verified public health information.

“The technology to do this is available. If they are able to follow us around the internet and target highly niche ads at us based on our personal data, they are able to provide comprehensive myth-busting information.

“This first simple step towards transparency would help the public be more sceptical of what they see, and also know whether they’re being targeted in particular.

“Australia has always been a leader in public health, whether it’s tobacco regulation, seat belts or helmets. Why should it be any different for our digital and social health? We need public oversight into how these platforms operate and that starts with transparency about misinformation.”

While Google and Facebook have announced minor mechanisms to target the spread of false information, they’ve done little to address the systemic causes.

“Removing content or labelling it is a start but it doesn’t help correct that the misinformation has been served up to someone before it’s removed. It also doesn’t address the way we are being served up content, through filter bubbles.

“Social media pushes us into filter bubbles, so my experience of Facebook or Twitter is completely different to my baby boomer neighbour’s, for example. In her bubble she may be seeing that swallowing a clove of garlic cures coronavirus, while my bubble might be telling me to avoid garlic because that spreads the virus - but neither of us would have any idea on what the other is seeing.”

While coronavirus is an immediate example of the dangers of false information spreading online, broader social harms caused by the platforms’ amplification of misinformation need to be addressed. Responsible Technology Australia is an independent organisation that advocates for the ethical progression of technology for a safer, fairer, and more democratic Australia.

“This misinformation is deliberate, but it is also detectable, and ultimately it can be prevented. In the long run addressing this information imbalance requires regulatory oversight. Responsible Technology Australia is pleased to see the work with ACMA on a disinformation code that is in development.

“The platforms can’t just simply say ‘trust us’. We need them to start being transparent, because that is what will ultimately make them accountable.

“Saying it’s the responsibility of the individual user to decide is no longer good enough, because social media’s impact affects us all. We need an independent social media watchdog.

“This is an area in which Australia has already led. The Prime Minister took globally well-regarded steps when he looked to crack down on violent extremist content in the wake of Christchurch.”