Coronavirus: Who Fact Checks the Social Media Fact Checkers!
It is becoming increasingly commonplace to see Social Media Services stepping in as the purveyor of truth.
As of June 2020 Facebook had 2.70 Billion monthly users. Which is mind staggering. To help put that into context there are 2.4 Billion Christians in the world today.
With the power to propagate what is fact and what is false to billions around the world especially in regards to the Coronavirus, the question that is raised is who, if in fact anyone, checks to see if the Social Media Services are actually right or wrong?
During this pandemic we are now seeing on more than one occasion, Social Media Services taking down tweets from the President of the United States. Now without getting into whether you like the guy or not, let’s just take a step back and look at the big picture.
Social Media Services, the ones who already take all your personal information so that it can be sold to the highest bidding advertiser. The same guys who continually run AB interface testing on us to determine our personal sweet spots of addictive endorphin releasing interaction so that they can keep you jacked in for longer to learn even more about your likes and habits.
Swipe… Swipe… Scroll… Swipe… Hey how did it get so late?
As if not enough to alter our behaviours, these guys are now moving into the territory of determining what you understand to be factual or not. Now you could argue that being the provider of content they are doing this already, but to openly takedown a message from the leader of the most powerful country in the world is a huge stance that needs to be questioned.
Social media took down Trump’s posts as they deemed it to propagate harmful COVID misinformation. In one example, Trump had said that children are “almost immune” to COVID. Now the understanding of COVID at the time as it still is today is that this is not true. Healthy children are also vulnerable to COVID but they seem to have less severe responses when they get it and they don’t seem to be the super spreaders they originally were feared to be.
But to take the post down is a black and white stance on an issue that we still don’t know much about. The scientific facts of Coronavirus are still not in and I don’t believe anyone at this time knows 100% what is going on.
The argument is that Social Media needed to take the post down as following this, people reading the tweet as gospel would send their kids out into the world thinking they are immune and ultimately make things worse for everyone.
I understand this, but for Social Media to step in and dictate a narrative, they are projecting that they know what is factual and what is not. If they are going to play the role as Fact Checker in this world then they better have their Facts straight.
The question is where are they getting their facts from and can we trust them?
I recently experienced a Social Media fact check that left me pondering the same question and led me to write this article. Now let me get into my experience before you think that I have been seeding false conspiracy theories about the Coronavirus.
The Offending Post
Now you may have seen this infographic before. I shared this post to my Instagram story on April 22nd, one month into the lockdown here in Austria when the world was still getting to terms with masks, specifically whether you should you wear one or not. Everyone was looking to Singapore who dealt with the initial outbreak particularly well and they in turn were questioning why the west were not adopting masks when they had evidence that it helped curb the number of cases.
I summarise this graphic thusly:
*If you wear a mask and someone in close proximity to you has Covid there is a high chance you will get it, even if you are wearing a mask.*
*If you are not wearing a mask and someone in close proximity to you has Covid, but they are wearing a mask, there is a lesser chance that you will get it, than if they were not wearing a mask.*
*If you are wearing a mask and someone in close proximity to you has Covid but is also wearing a mask, then there is even less chance that you will get it.*
To cut a long story short I summarise this as, if you wear a mask when in close proximity to other people and you have Coronavirus but don’t know about it, their chances of getting it is reduced.
Five Months later
Five months later I noticed in my Instagram activity feed a little caution icon:
“Independent fact-checkers say information in your post is false. We’ve added a notice to your photo”
Now this is five months later so I had no idea what it was referring to. I looked into it and realised they were talking about the story I shared months ago.
It was shared as an Instagram story which meant after 24 hours it was no longer accessible to anyone but me. So if I had unintentionally shared something false disguised as fact, it would have only been seen in a 24 hour period, meaning no perpetual misinformation.
Good. I explored what it was that Instagram flagged.
I tapped on the available option:
See conclusion from Newsmobile Fact Checker
I was taken to Instagram’s official independent fact checker, newsmobile.in and was immediately taken aback by the amount of advertising that was thrown my way.
The first advert banner was directed at old people and care homes: How old do they think I am?
The second was inviting me to find out all I need to know about the Coronavirus by checking out more on their website: If you are going to drown me in adverts, no thank you.
The third was about buying gold: I hear Robert Kiyosaki, of Rich Dad Poor Dad in my head screaming at me “the economy is about to collapse BUY GOLD!”
The look and feel of Instagram’s official independent fact checker was that of an early 2000’s porn site where Penis enlargement adverts wouldn’t look out of place. I barely have space to read the content I came for. Regardless I trudged on as though trying to read a newspaper through a letter box.
Does wearing masks reduce COVID-19 transmission probability to 1.5%? Here’s the truth.
We fact-checked the above information and found it to be unsubstantiated and false.
Now before embarking on this “fact checking rabbit hole” Instagram manages to cover themselves by labelling this as “independent fact-checking.” Which works in two ways:
*Independent as in un-biased “We are not pushing a narrative”*
Independent as in “Hey Penis-enlarging website said it was wrong, not us”
After being slapped with the you were wrong glove of infallibility, I rummaged through their arguments to see why I deserved it.
In the infographic, they look into the source (or lack of source) of the information and find it unsubstantiated because there is nothing that backs up the transmission percentages that were depicted in the post.
Okay I get it, the post I shared used percentages which had no scientific backing. Nobody has submitted scientific research that states if we all wear masks then your likelihood of getting Coronavirus is 1.5%.
But does that mean that the overall sentiment of this infographic is also wrong? The percentages are not factually backed, so does that mean I shouldn’t wear a mask at all, after all Instagram said so (or their independent fact-checkers did)
As if to subdue my confusion and answer my questions the fact checkers provided me with a screenshot from the WHO Website which stated.
The World Health Organisation … found that a healthy person is only advised to wear a mask if they are taking care of a COVID-19 affected patient
What? Had I just slipped through a time hole? When I read this in September, it was still mandatory here in Austria to wear masks on public transport. But Instagram was saying that I didn’t need to unless I was specifically looking after someone who had the coronavirus. I scrolled back to the top of the page and through the advertisement peephole I looked for the author of the post and when it was submitted.
News Mobile Fact Check Bureau
May 4, 2020
Now “News Mobile Fact Check Bureau” sounds like the credibility ensuring titles that the Microsoft Phone Scammers use.
“Excuse me sir, we are calling you today because we realised in April 2020 you posted a picture with factually incorrect percentages, now if you will just give us your sort code and account number our News Mobile Fact Check Bureau will ensure the safety and wellbeing of those who have seen your post”
The Fact was checked on the 4th of May and was being presented to me as truth in mid September. I looked on the WHO website to check the reference that they themselves used (which you can also do so here.)
It hadn’t been updated since the 5th of August 2020 but was still 3 months more recent that the source “News Mobile Fact Check Bureau” fact checked me with in September.
The WHO’s stance as of today states “Non-medial, fabric masks,” the types that most of us are using, have limited evidence of their effectiveness, and they recommend that it is not used as a be-all-and-end-all solution to control Covid-19. But, if you find yourself in an environment where it is not possible to give at least 1 meter social distance, like on public transport and shops, then they encourage the general public to use masks.
The fact check was right but it was also wrong, which seems to be the ongoing theme with information regarding the Coronavirus. Facts are only correct based on what is known at the time.
Had the post been fact-checked when it was posted in April or in early May when the fact-check article was originally created then it would have been right, based on what we knew at the time.
“What you posted isn’t entirely true, don’t think you are safe just because you are wearing a mask, the Who website currently states that you only need to wear a mask if you are treating a patient with the coronavirus because there is limited evidence that they actually work.”
But this fact-check came to me in September, when the number of cases were rising again as we looked to enter a second wave. If I hadn’t checked the date of the fact-check or the date of the source they referenced, and I blindly took it as truth I would be walking around with no mask, telling all my friends that the WHO said you only need to wear a mask if you are looking after someone with COVID.
Now it may sound stupid to think that I would just take on faith information that has been given to me by Social Media without double checking it. But in reality how many of us spend time checking into these things? Especially when we are conditioned through interactions with our phones to skip important information.
Did you read the terms and conditions?
YES – Check
*So we will now take the naughty Whatsapp pictures that you sent to your girlfriend and use them for one of our client’s X-Rated dating apps?*
What? I didn’t agree to that
*I think you did, when you said you read the terms and conditions.*
Clearly Instagram is using an algorithm to pick up on posts that have been classified as false. Perhaps they are using reverse image search technology which detects when an image has been used and flags it. This links the user to a company who hosts the fact-check and tries to make a little money by giving you unsolicited advertisements.
(Perhaps they should also be using Instagram’s personalised adverts)
This fact-checking process could have been useful if it was instantaneous and not delivered 5 months late when the facts had already changed.
However leaving fact-checking to computers raises the issue of the lack of sentiment when checking. For instance the post that I used, yes the percentages were not factual, but the overall sentiment said, wear a mask it will help protect those around you if you unknowingly have it,
This was true then as it is true now.
Now I know it isn’t feasible for billions of posts to be fact-checked instantly by humans, but had it been I would have liked to think it would have went something like this.
Hey the infographic that you shared 5 months ago said that if you wear a mask there is a 1.5% chance that you could be infected with the Coronaviurs. There is no scientific basis for this so don’t go out there thinking that you are invincible because you can still catch COVID even if you are wearing a mask. But if you find yourself in an enclosed space and you are unable to keep 1 meter distance from others then you should wear one, as recommended by the WHO as of the 5th of August.
Now I am not the President of the United states so I am sure that someone more credible that the “News Mobile Fact Check Bureau” fact checked his post before Facebook decided to take it down. But the same logic applies.
We don’t know 100% what is going on with the Coronavirus. What is fact today can be found to be false a few months later. To take the post down even if at the time it is considered to be wrong, is saying that it is unequivocally wrong, which you can not say from what we know right now about the Coronavirus.
I believe it would have been more beneficial to leave it up and create a discussion point, which can be continually evaluated and if needs be rejected again at a later date.
Social media dictating what is right and wrong, and only showing what they deem to be right to their billions of users is a type of censorship that has been proved a disservice to society through history. Not only that but letting algorithms do that job for you without full visibility is a little worrying.