A victory for truth | Daily News

A victory for truth

As we have explained in these spaces earlier, there is a lot of misinformation on almost every subject on Earth on Facebook and other social media platforms. This is hardly surprising, since Facebook is a smorgasbord of content generated by billions of users worldwide, who hold disparate views on various issues. Needless to say, many users peddle outright lies in their social media posts, some of which could be dangerous and even life-threatening.

This is indeed the case with COVID-19, which has so far infected more than 106 million people worldwide. If you scour the pages on Facebook, you will come across any number of pages which deny the very existence of COVID-19 (“it is a hoax”), denigrate the efficacy and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines, decry lockdown and isolation measures imposed by Governments and spread many other fabrications.

Facebook, increasingly under pressure by Governments and regulators to moderate its platforms, has finally swallowed the bitter pill and decided that enough is enough. Facebook yesterday said it will remove any false posts related to COVID-19, COVID-19 vaccines, and vaccines in general. The company began removing debunked COVID-19 claims in December last year and notifying customers when they had seen a post that contains false information. But now the list of potential claims that could get a post removed has grown.

Under this decision, Facebook will remove any pages that make outlandish claims such as that COVID-19 is man-made, vaccines are not effective at preventing the disease, it is safer to get the disease than to get its vaccine and vaccines are dangerous, toxic, or cause autism. Claims that Microsoft founder Bill Gates is trying to inject Nano chips capable of tracking people into inoculations as well as conspiracy theories that COVID is caused by 5G cell phone waves will also be booted out. These theories have been comprehensively debunked by experts countless times, yet there are those who fall prey to them.

Facebook says it will start enforcing this policy immediately, focusing on groups, pages, and accounts that share content from its new list of debunked claims. The company also says it would consider removing the sources of the posts entirely if they became repeat offenders. This is a victory for all those who value truth, because Facebook was a major source of vaccine misinformation well before the COVID-19 pandemic and addressing it more directly could have a meaningful impact. We hope that Facebook-owned apps such as WhatsApp and Instagram, not to mention Twitter and other social media apps will also follow suit.

It is not enough to drive people away from falsehoods. Facebook et al must also steer users in the direction of truth and facts. This is vital in the age of “alternative facts”, “post-truth” and even “fake news”. In short, social media companies must help people navigate the pandemic of misinformation (sometimes called the “infodemic”) and seek correct information. Hence, it is important to note that Facebook is also making adjustments to how factual COVID-19 information is delivered on Facebook and Instagram. The company will feature links to authentic and authorised vaccine information and for signing up to receive a vaccination in respective countries in its COVID-19 Information Centre, and it plans to bring the feature to Instagram as well.

We hope Sri Lanka too will get this feature, since vaccinations for the general population here are starting in March this year. In an attempt to show its commitment to these new policies, Facebook is extending US$ 120 million in advertising credits to “help health ministries, NGOs, and UN agencies” spread COVID-19 vaccine information to its billions of users. It is not yet known how this will be distributed, though.

In another move, Facebook says it is continuing to improve search on both platforms to surface more “relevant, authoritative results” when a user searches something related COVID-19, including displaying any users who discourage vaccinations lower in search results. Google, the biggest search engine on the Internet, should follow suit. If any information is false, the search engines should make that clear to the users.

One might argue that people should be able to speak freely on the Net and espouse their own theories regardless of whether they are true or false. This is a dangerous assumption. Here in Sri Lanka, we have seen how social media posts added fuel to the fire after the unfortunate events of Easter Sunday 2019. It was with the greatest difficulty that a bigger calamity was averted.

This is why content policing and moderation by both social media companies and Government authorities are essential. Facebook appointed a team of moderators conversant in Sinhala and Tamil after the Easter Sunday tragedy to monitor any incendiary posts. While their numbers could have been increased, they seem to be doing a good job for the moment. This policy must continue and the authorities too should be on guard against any attempts to spread misinformation via social media. Yes, free speech must be protected, but not at the cost of precious lives.