As the Wuhan coronavirus death toll rises to more than 200 people and the number of confirmed cases reaches nearly 10,000 across more than 15 countries, the World Health Organization (WHO) yesterday declared a “public health emergency of international concern.”

But as the coronavirus continues to spread, so does misinformation around ways to prevent and treat it.

False claims of potential vaccines and preposterous prevention methods such as avoiding cold food or not eating spicy food have been shared widely across social media. “Miracle cures” such as rinsing your mouth with a saline solution or drinking bleach have also reared their heads.

Now Facebook has confirmed that it’s looking to “limit the spread” of misinformation about the coronavirus while directing people toward helpful information. The company said it’s fact-checking content and debunking false claims across its main Facebook property and Instagram, as well as surfacing accurate information. Facebook also said it’s proactively sending notifications to people who have already shared — or are actively trying to share — falsehoods relating to the coronavirus.

Additionally, Facebook said it will begin removing content that involves false claims or far-fetched conspiracy theories around how the virus has spread while blocking or “restricting” hashtags that increase exposure to misinformation.

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“We’re focusing on claims that are designed to discourage treatment or taking appropriate precautions,” noted Facebook’s head of health, Kang-Xing Jin. “This includes claims related to false cures or prevention methods — like [the claim that] drinking bleach cures the coronavirus or claims that create confusion about health resources that are available.”

Tellingly, Facebook said its efforts involve finding and removing “as much of this content as we can,” a tacit acknowledgement that it can’t thwart every dubious piece of content on its platform. But that is the price of creating a gargantuan network of 2 billion people who are free to create and share whatever ludicrous theories and medical solutions they like.

New reality

On the flip side, social media can be used to share accurate information more quickly, including through partnerships with education and health organizations such as WHO. Moreover, Facebook’s sheer scale also means it’s well positioned to map and track diseases by combining satellite imagery, computer vision, census data, and proprietary data — all part of its Data for Good program.

“We are empowering leading researchers at Harvard University’s School of Public Health and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan by sharing aggregated and anonymized mobility data and high-resolution population density maps to help inform their forecasting models for the spread of the virus as part of our broader Data for Good program,” Kang-Xing Jin added. “We may expand these efforts to a broader set of partners in the coming weeks.”

But when fake news is thrown into the mix alongside all the good stuff, what we end up with is a cacophonous crackle that leaves millions of people unsure what to believe.

This is just a typical day on social media, of course, where fighting falsities and fake news has become the new reality.

Back in 2018, reports emerged that Facebook was featuring homemade cancer “cures” more prominently than genuine information from renowned organizations. To combat this, the company revealed that it would “downgrade” posts that promoted miracle cures — leaving them up but making them less visible. A separate report found that YouTube videos were promoting bleach as a cure for autism.

Countless other examples of user-generated nonsense (UGN) permeate these platforms, such as conspiracy theories about mass shooting events being staged and far-fetched proclamations that the moon landing never happened or that the Earth is flat. Last year, YouTube promised to cull such videos from its recommendations engine.

The coronavirus outbreak is serious, and it could get a whole lot worse before it gets better. The spread of misinformation surrounding it only compounds matters, but it also serves to highlight the uphill battle Facebook and other social media platforms face across the entire “fake” spectrum — be that fake reviews, fake goods, or fake news.