Facebook's 'trust us' approach to COVID-19 fake news is failing, Australia must demand transparency


The federal government should reject Facebook's 'trust us' approach to the spread of dangerous COVID-19 fake news and instead demand that the top virus-related posts are released publicly so Australian health authorities can assess their impact.

Health authorities are worried about the impact of fraudulent posts, listings, conspiracy theories, and false information about COVID-19 on social media. Facebook has attempted to quell concerns by promising it has tweaked search results for 'coronavirus' to point to authoritative content, labelling fake content, and prioritising content from the World Health Organisation.

But Chris Cooper, Executive Director of Responsible Technology Australia, said all of these measures relied on trust, and the government should demand more from Facebook.

"Australian health authorities have no idea what COVID-19 posts are being spread across Facebook, but Facebook knows and they should share that information with us now," Mr Cooper said.

"The government should be demanding that Facebook publish a list of the top 100 most shared posts about COVID-19 so authorities can see the scale of the problem.

"Facebook has not proved itself adept or willing when it comes to weeding out fake news, but they could easily show us a list of what's going viral. Why should Australia accept a 'trust us' approach from Facebook when the stakes are this high?

"Our main weapon against COVID-19 is timely, accurate health information. But with fake news spreading on social platforms our health authorities have no idea what kind of headwinds they're facing.

"The platforms can no longer just say 'trust us'. We need them to start being transparent with the public and if they won't, then we need government to step in and force them to lift the veil.

"Right now we only have anecdotal evidence that misinformation about coronavirus, including instances of fake public health warnings, is spreading among some groups online. If we can't see the scale of the problem, we can't even begin to figure out how to tackle it.

"If Facebook's technology allows them to follow us around the internet and target niche ads at us based on our personal data, they can easily show us what misinformation is being spread and where. We just have to demand it."

Mr Cooper said that while Google and Facebook have announced minor mechanisms to target the spread of false information, they've done little to address the systemic causes.

While coronavirus is an immediate example of the dangers of false information spreading online, broader social harms caused by the platforms' amplification of misinformation need to be addressed.

Responsible Technology Australia is an independent organisation that advocates for the ethical progression of technology for a safer, fairer, and more democratic Australia.

"The spread of false information is not necessarily deliberate, as people with good intentions may unknowingly share misinformation, but Facebook can detect it, and ultimately it can prevent it," Mr Cooper said.

"Addressing this information imbalance requires regulatory oversight. Responsible Technology Australia is pleased to see the work of ACMA on developing a disinformation code."

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