The Pandemic’s ‘Infodemic’ and Facebook’s Face-Saving Response

Leilani Carver-Madalon, Associate Professor, Maryville University

In the midst of a global pandemic, we are simultaneously experiencing a massive global infodemic. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines this as “an over-abundance of information – some accurate and some not – that makes it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance when they need it.”

On social media, misinformation often is shared at accelerated rates. In early April, approximately one-third of social media users reported seeing misinformation about COVID-19 on social media in the United States, Argentina, Germany, South Korea, Spain and the United Kingdom in a study conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

Social media plays a crucial role in this infodemic, especially on Facebook. It still is the largest social media platform in the world, with approximately 2.6 billion monthly active users. In the past, Facebook has rendered enormous control over what content, including news, its users see and share. Unlike traditional media, though, it often took little responsibility for content and turned a blind eye to misinformation.
COVID-19 Changes
Uncharacteristically, Facebook has been proactively targeting COVID-19 misinformation and enacted a number of crisis communication strategies:

Launched a COVID-19 Information Center, which is featured at the top of the Facebook News Feed (it includes real-time updates from health organizations and vetted world authorities, such as the WHO)
Gave the WHO free ad space and granted ad credits to other health organizations
Removed COVID-19-related misinformation that could contribute to imminent physical harm (see sidebar)
Employed fact-checking partners in 45 languages to address claims that don’t directly result in physical harm, like conspiracy theories about the origin of the virus
Partnered with the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN) to launch a $1 million grant program

Many people define misinformation as a message with false content that has the underlying intent to deceive. Yet intention is incredibly difficult to measure, especially on social.

In a public health context, misinformation takes on extreme stakes as it may translate into life or death situations.


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