The news: Pages spreading health misinformation got an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook in the year up to May 2020, according to analysis by human rights group Avaaz. Views peaked at nearly half a billion in April 2020 alone, just as the pandemic was rapidly escalating globally, it found. Content from 10 websites spreading health misinformation received almost four times as many estimated views on Facebook as content from 10 reliable sources, such as the World Health Organisation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In all, Avaaz studied 82 websites in depth that spread health misinformation like anti-vaccination campaigns, bogus (and sometimes lethally dangerous) cures for covid-19, and articles falsely claiming the coronavirus death toll has been overcounted.
The impact: This is by no means a victimless issue. A study in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene last week found that at least 800 people may have died around the world and 5,800 admitted to hospital as a result of coronavirus misinformation in the first three months of 2020, many of them after drinking methanol or cleaning products, believing them to cure covid-19.
What can be done about it? Arguably, Facebook could just ban the websites Avaaz has identified from its platform. The company promised to start taking a more proactive approach to fact-checking and removing covid-19 misinformation in April, but stopped short at saying it would alert people who have viewed or shared falsehoods. In its report, Avaaz says that taking this step could start to make a big dent in the number of people who believe in misinformation. It also says that Facebook needs to “detox” its algorithm by downgrading misinformation posts in people’s news feeds, thus decreasing their reach. “Facebook has yet to effectively apply these solutions at the scale and sophistication needed to defeat this infodemic, despite repeated calls from doctors and health experts to do so,” the report concludes.