Note: This is a post I wrote originally for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer
Both Google and Facebook have acted surprisingly quickly to remove disinformation related to the COVID-19 virus over the past few weeks, considering their somewhat mixed track record when it comes to removing hoaxes, conspiracy theories, and trolls related to political campaigns. But experts there is still a lot more that they and other digital platforms could be doing. CJR spoke this week with Karen Kornbluh and Ellen Goodman, co-authors of a new paper published by the German Marshall Fund entitled “Safeguarding Digital Democracy,” which includes a series of steps they say the major digital platforms need to take in order to deal with the problem. Kornbluh is a former US Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and a senior fellow at the GMF and director of the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative, and Goodman is a professor at Rutgers Law School and co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Information Policy & Law.
In addition to Kornbluh and Goodman, CJR also held two roundtables with other experts using our Galley discussion platform, one of which included Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University; Dipayan Ghosh, co-director of the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School; Mark MacCarthy, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Technology Law and Policy at Georgetown Law school, and Victor Pickard, an associate professor at the Annenberg School for Communication. The second roundtable with Goodman and Kornbluh also included Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy and Information Center; Kate Klonick from St. John’s University law school; Enrique Armijo, a law professor at Elon University; Gus Hurwitz from the Nebraska College of Law; and Evelyn Douek, a doctoral student at Harvard Law School.
“The policy debate on disinformation has been hobbled by a false choice between allowing platforms or the government to censor. We propose instead empowering citizens through updating offline protections and rights (consumer protection, civil rights, privacy, campaign finance), supporting journalism and increasing accountability of platforms,” said Kornbluh. One of the things that would improve the overall information environment and counter-balance some of the worst of what the platforms do, she and Goodman suggest, is the creation of a PBS-style funding and distribution structure for digital journalism — an entity that they argue should be funded by a tax on the advertising revenues of Facebook and Google.
“Far better to create a public fund, administered according to objective standards of journalistic practices, than to depend on the platforms’ largesse where they determine who gets funding and amplification,” said Kornbluh. Bell, of Columbia, has also suggested in the past that something of that sort could be created, a need that a number of participants said was even more keenly felt given the recent revenue drop caused by COVID-19. “There are lots of philanthropic efforts to fill the news hole and address news deserts, but there’s just not enough support there,” says Goodman. “We need policy, as we had in 1967 with the creation of public broadcasting.” The fund would not just support content but also infrastructure, with a public cloud and broadband access, and an independent clearinghouse that would distribute funds in partnership with public libraries and other institutions.
Among the other recommendations made by Goodman and Kornbluh in their paper are regulations similar to the campaign finance act that require the platforms to reveal who funds political advertising, as well as pressure on the digital giants to modify the “dark patterns” of user-interface design that make it difficult for users to find information, but make it very easy for them to share disinformation without checking it. Goodman adds that despite Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives the platforms immunity for content they host, she and Kornbluh argue that the digital giants should be held responsible when they take advertising that is unlawful, and that they should be penalized if the disinformation they are spreading goes viral.
Here’s more on the platforms and disinformation:
Bleach ads: Despite recent comments from Facebook vice-president (and former British Deputy Prime Minister) Nick Clegg, in which he said the social network was removing any messages spreading disinformation about the virus — such as recommending people drink bleach, or telling them to avoid social distancing — Consumer Reports says it was able to get several such ads approved to run on Facebook this week. The ads included advice to drink bleach and said the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 was a hoax, and told people not to bother social distancing because it wasn’t necessary. The magazine says it removed the ads from the Facebook queue before they were seen.
WhatsApp limits: The Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service is trying to limit the spread of misinformation by changing the settings so that messages can only be forwarded a certain number of times. Now, once a message has been forwarded more than five times, users will only be able to forward it to one chat session at a time. In a previous change last year designed to limit misinformation, a message forwarded more than five times could only be sent to five chat sessions at a time. Despite that restriction, however, misinformation surrounding COVID-19 has reportedly been spreading through a number of African countries such as Nigeria.
TikTok too: Conspiracy theories about the supposed dangers of 5G wireless networks are spreading on the Chinese-owned TikTok video-sharing service, promoted by a number of high-profile creators and accounts tied to the QAnon conspiracy group. The company’s guidelines prohibit “misinformation that could cause harm,” but some of the conspiracy theories that are being promoted may be tied to recent incidents in which 5G phone antennas have been burned down across the UK, according to a report from iNews.
Why we believe: Experts say there are a number of reasons why people believe misinformation, about the COVID-19 virus and other things, and one of them is information overload. “We are bombarded with information all day, every day, and we therefore often rely on our intuition to decide whether something is accurate,” says a report from the BBC. “Purveyors of fake news can make their message feel “truthy” through a few simple tricks, which discourages us from applying our critical thinking skills – such as checking the veracity of its source. As the authors of one paper put it: “When thoughts flow smoothly, people nod along.”
Other notable stories:
More than a dozen Democratic senators are calling for any future stimulus package addressing the economic fallout from the coronavirus to include funding for local journalism, saying that communities across the U.S. are at risk of losing their source of news because of the pandemic. “Local news is in a state of crisis that has only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the senators wrote in a letter sent to the upper chamber’s leadership on Wednesday.
The Jewish Chronicle and Jewish News are to close and their staff will be made redundant, according to a report in The Guardian, after their parent company ran out of money during the pandemic. While some news outlets have put journalists on paid leave in the hope of riding out the crisis, sources at the Jewish Chronicle say staff were informed that the parent company had run out of cash and could not continue trading. The news came out just as Passover was beginning.
CNN checked in with a number of leading health reporters and writers about how they are covering the COVID-19 pandemic, including Lena Sun of the Washington Post, Ed Yong of The Atlantic, Stephanie Lee of BuzzFeed News, and Max Filby of The Columbus Dispatch. Soumya Karlamangla of The Los Angeles Times said she has noticed that sources are eager to talk to her about the pandemic. “Literally everyone wants to talk to us all the time because they want to prevent something bad from happening,” she said.
Britain’s culture secretary warned in a letter to advertising firms that they need to stop blacklisting news stories about the COVID-19 virus or the government may take action, according to a report in The Guardian. Oliver Dowden said trusted news outlets are a “fourth emergency service at this time because they provide independent, verifiable news and information to the public” and they need to be saved, the Guardian reported.
When the people of Wuhan and elsewhere across China have wanted to share lockdown anxieties, seek advice or simply vent, many have turned to one of the country’s most famous Wuhan heroes: Li Wenliang, the whistleblower doctor who died Feb. 7, according to a Washington Post report. In recent weeks, homebound Internet users have left hundreds of thousands of messages to “Brother Liang” as comments under Li’s final post from Feb. 1 on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform.
The Associated Press is launching a video feature on Thursday called 24 Hours: The Fight for New York, in which more than a dozen reporters, photographers and video journalists followed a series of people all over the city as they dealt with the challenges of COVID-19, including an emergency room doctor, a funeral home director, and a taxi driver. All of the content will be available on the AP website on Thursday.
Vox Media has launched a campaign asking its readers for contributions to help support its journalism. In a note to readers, the site says that it “feels a great sense of responsibility to bring you more of our distinctive coverage, in new and different ways, and to continue doing so for free. But even with record audience growth, the media business is not immune to the effects of economic downturns.” A donation page gives readers the option of giving $7 a month, $18 a month, $50 a month, or $100 a month.
HuffPost will be hosting a virtual Q&A today from 1 to 2 PM on coping with anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the question-and-answer session, Kate Palmer, head of HuffPost Life and Lindsay Holmes, HuffPost senior wellness editor, will talk about what they’ve learned from experts while covering various aspects of the pandemic, share tips and answer questions from attendees on self-care, stress and more.
Mark Hertsgaard writes for CJR about how the prominence of the COVID-19 story is allowing governments and other entities to rollback measures related to climate change. The focus on the virus, says Hertsgaard, has “distracted the press from its watchdog function on other matters of public importance, including the climate crisis. Just as some merchants have exploited the pandemic to price gouge, some government and corporate officials appear to have chosen this moment of anxiety and distraction to engineer financial giveaways and regulatory rollbacks that under normal circumstances would be bitterly contested.”
British commercial broadcaster Channel 4 has outlined an emergency cost-cutting plan in its bid to weather the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic. In an all-staff conference call on Wednesday afternoon, Channel 4 CEO Alex Mahon said the broadcaster planned to slash its 2020 content budget by $185 million and find $118 million of operational savings, including reviewing investments and cutting marketing spend. Channel 4 added that it will put around 10 percent of its staff on paid leave, and plans to draw down on its $93 million emergency credit facility for the first time.