'Fake news' tweets which could make coronavirus outbreak worse to be removed

Tweets that put people at risk of contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus as it rapidly spreads across the globe are to be removed by Twitter to help the public get accurate information and avoid myths and misinformation.

This includes posts which promote “fake or ineffective treatments” for COVID-19 as well as those that deny “expert guidance” on the coronavirus.

The social network site, which has millions of active users, has said such tweets would contravene its safety rules so they will be marked as harmful and removed.

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The ban includes claims that specific groups are more susceptible to contracting the virus, posting unverified claims that incite people to action and cause widespread panic and posting about harmful or non-harmful treatments which do not work.

In a post on its website, Twitter said: “We will enforce this in close co-ordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities and governments, and continue to use and consult with information from those sources when reviewing content.”

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False claims about the coronavirus and bogus cures have circulated on social media, often attracting hundreds of shares.

Citing examples, Twitter said people will be required to remove tweets that include:

  • Denial of expert guidance, such as: “social distancing is not effective”
  • Description of treatments or protective measures which are not immediately harmful but are known to be ineffective with the intent to mislead others, even if made in jest, such as “coronavirus is not heat-resistant – walking outside is enough to disinfect you” or “use aromatherapy and essential oils to prevent COVID-19”
  • Description of harmful treatments or protection measures which are known to be ineffective, do not apply to COVID-19, or are being shared out of context to mislead people, even if made in jest, such as “drinking bleach and ingesting colloidal silver will cure COVID-19”
  • Denial of established scientific facts such as “COVID-19 does not infect children because we haven’t seen any cases of children being sick”
  • Claims that intend to manipulate people into certain behaviour for the gain of a third party such as “coronavirus is a fraud and not real – go out and patronise your local bar!!”
  • Specific and unverified claims that incite people to action and cause widespread panic, social unrest or large-scale disorder, such as “The National Guard just announced that no more shipments of food will be arriving for 2 months – run to the grocery store ASAP and buy everything!”
  • Specific and unverified claims made by people impersonating a government or health official or organisation such as a parody account of an Italian health official stating that the country’s quarantine is over
  • Propagating false or misleading information about COVID-19 such as “if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds, you do not have coronavirus”
  • False or misleading claims on how to differentiate between COVID-19 and a different disease, such as “if you have a wet cough, it’s not coronavirus – but a dry cough is”
  • Claims that specific groups or nationalities are never susceptible to COVID-19, such as “people with dark skin are immune to COVID-19 due to melanin production”
  • Claims that specific groups, nationalities are more susceptible to COVID-19, such as “avoid businesses owned by Chinese people as they are more likely to have COVID-19”

The action by Twitter follows an announcement from technology companies Facebook, Google, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Reddit and YouTube earlier this week in which they committed to work together and with governments in response to the pandemic.

In a joint statement, they said they would work to ensure people could stay connected to each other during isolation as well as fight any misinformation and fraud linked to the outbreak.

“We are working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts,” they said.

“We’re helping millions of people stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in co-ordination with government healthcare agencies around the world.”

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Social media sites and search engines have already been placing official guidance from the NHS and World Health Organisation (WHO) at the top of search results.

Other platforms have also pledged to work quickly to remove any misinformation linked to the virus which is flagged to or spotted by them.

Research has found the rise of “fake news” – including misinformation and inaccurate advice on social media – could make disease outbreaks such as COVID-19 worse.

In an analysis of how the spread of misinformation affects the spread of disease, scientists at East Anglia University (UEA) said in February that any successful efforts to stop people sharing fake news could help save lives.

Professor of medicine Paul Hunter said: “When it comes to COVID-19, there has been a lot of speculation, misinformation and fake news circulating on the internet – about how the virus originated, what causes it and how it is spread.

“Misinformation means that bad advice can circulate very quickly – and it can change human behaviour to take greater risks.”

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