How Do You Moderate COVID-19 Misinformation When It's Coming From Official Sources?

from the content-moderation-at-scale-is-impossible dept

Continuing our never-ending series of posts about the impossibility of content moderation at scale, let’s take a look at just how impossible it is to handle misinformation in the age of COVID-19. Ben Thompson over at Stratechery has a truly wonderful post highlighting this problem with regards to Twitter’s disinformation policies, and how things break down when the “misinformation” is coming form official sources. We noted this, to some extent, the other day when we called out Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo for saying that he was seeking to have anyone who posted false information online about COVID-19 prosecuted. During the press conference, he said to only listen to “your elected officials, or to your appointed officials.” But, as we noted, our elected officials and their appointees aren’t always right.

As Thompson points out, Twitter also took the seemingly reasonable position that in an effort to stop (widespread) COVID-19 misinformation, it would start taking down content that disagreed with official government statements:

Broadening our definition of harm to address content that goes directly against guidance from authoritative sources of global and local public health information. Rather than reports, we will enforce this in close coordination with trusted partners, including public health authorities and governments, and continue to use and consult with information from those sources when reviewing content.

But… what if that official information was bad? Ben points out that the World Health Organization (WHO), the US CDC, and the US Surgeon General all provided bad information to the public regarding the wearing of masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.

But, as Zeynep Tufecki wrote in an excellent NY Times article a few weeks ago, however well-intentioned these claims were, they not only were wrong, but they backfired. The message was spread this way, in part, to try to stop the hoarding of masks that were absolutely necessary for medical professionals. The supply of these were limited and because our government seemed unwilling to properly prepare for a pandemic, we were caught short. But telling people that the masks don’t work was wrong and a mistake.

It is of course true that masks don?t work perfectly, that they don?t replace hand-washing and social distancing, and that they work better if they fit properly. And of course, surgical masks (the disposable type that surgeons wear) don?t filter out small viral particles the way medical-grade respirator masks rated N95 and above do. However, even surgical masks protect a bit more than not wearing masks at all. We know from flu research that mask-wearing can help decrease transmission rates along with frequent hand-washing and social-distancing. Now that we are facing a respirator mask shortage, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending that surgical masks are ?an acceptable alternative? for health care workers ? again, obviously because some protection, even if imperfect, is better than none. In the face of this, publicly presenting an absolute answer ? ?You don?t need them? ? for something that requires a qualified response just makes people trust authorities even less.

Fourth, the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. told the public to wear masks if they were sick. However, there is increasing evidence of asymptomatic transmission, especially through younger people who have milder cases and don?t know they are sick but are still infectious. Since the W.H.O. and the C.D.C. do say that masks lessen the chances that infected people will infect others, then everyone should use masks. If the public is told that only the sick people are to wear masks, then those who do wear them will be stigmatized and people may well avoid wearing them if it screams ?I?m sick.? Further, it?s very difficult to be tested for Covid-19 in the United States. How are people supposed to know for sure when to mask up?

Indeed, there is very strong scientific evidence that masks — even homemade ones — do quite a lot to help slow the spread of COVID-19 — mostly in protecting non-infected wearers and protecting them from getting sick. In fact, the evidence seems to suggest that masks warn by those who are already sick from COVID-19 don’t actually help that much. This is from a 2008 study of the impact of masks on respiratory infections:

So, now, how do you deal with this as a content moderator? Here, the government is clearly saying that you shouldn’t wear masks unless you are symptomatic. But actual evidence suggests that’s a bad idea, and that the government actually pushed out misinformation in an attempt to cover up its own failure to have a proper supply of masks ready to go — and then to prevent hoarding of what was out there. While the strategy to prevent hoarding may be well-intentioned, the fact that the health claims were misleading and potentially harmful is a concern.

So, should Twitter be blocking posts telling people to buy or wear masks? Or is that “harmful”? It’s difficult to say.

There are, indeed, similar challenges around potential treatments for COVID-19. For example, over the past few weeks there has been tremendous controversy about a variation of chloroquine, which is mostly known as an anti-malarial drug that is useful in treating conditions like lupus. There have been a few small studies that have suggested that chloraquine, combined with some other drugs, might help. Maybe. But there are lots of questions about those studies, and there’s little solid evidence to back it up. Yet, it might actually help. After the President spoke about chloraquine in a manner that was not yet supported by science, many of his supporters have been flooding the internet and airwaves with exaggerated claims about it and its possible effectiveness. Again, what’s important here is that it might be effective, and the FDA has now approved it for emergency use to treat COVID-19 as more tests are ongoing.

But how do you moderate tweets about it? How do you distinguish accurate discussions of what the studies currently say with those pushing it as a miracle drug? I’ve seen some serious discussions analyzing the effectiveness of chloraquine that appear promising — but all of the tests so far are small and limited, and it would be a mistake to read too much into them. But how do you then hand that off to a moderator and get them to understand the difference between careful, thoughtful, nuanced discussions about it… and whatever nonsense the President himself is spewing? Again, the President is an “authoritative source” in most contexts…

Even more complex: I’m guessing that if more evidence does eventually come out that chloraquine is effective (again, I’m making no statement one way or the other as to whether or not that will happen as I honestly have no idea), you can bet that those who had their nonsense tweets about it “being proven 100% effective” (as I’ve seen on Twitter a few times) will insist that Twitter was “censoring the truth” in some effort to probably “undermine the President” or some such nonsense. But, of course, that’s not accurate at all. Determining what is and what is not “misinformation” in the midst of a pandemic when no one really knows fully what’s good information and what is not puts content moderators in an impossible position.

When the WHO, the CDC, the Surgeon General and the President might all be pushing misleading information, how are we expecting social media content moderators to magically get it all right?

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Comments on “How Do You Moderate COVID-19 Misinformation When It's Coming From Official Sources?”

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This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Coward says:

How to stop misinformation about COVID-19

Common sense with a dash of critical reasoning. And a healthy dose of straight up ignoring known liars.

They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!

That was obvious bullshit. If masks help medical staff avoid contracting COVID-19 then they will help everyone else, too. It should have been obvious to everyone that the goal of the statement above was to save the masks for medical staff who are at more risk than everyone else due to their constant exposure to the virus. But our "leaders" should have just said that instead of looking like lying asshats.

If you want to avoid being misinformed then ingest many different news sources and find the truth for yourself. Just try to avoid the Dunning-Kruger effect; Trust that you don’t know the answers and always be skeptical of your own beliefs and biases.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
greg.fenton (profile) says:

But our "leaders" should have just said that instead of looking like lying asshats.

I strongly suspect that being open and honest would have led to similar results to what we currently have with the request/insistence/demand/requirement/order that people stay home and self isolate:

  • "no one’s gonna tell me what to do"
  • "oh…I see…they think these doctors and nurses and cleaning staff are more important than I am!"

The run on toilet paper is evidence enough that the masses, at least in some communities, is a selfish horde.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Anonymous Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

The good, the bad, and the ugly...all at the same time.

The WHO, CDC and Surgeon General may have been speaking from the knowledge that there was a shortage of appropriate masks, and wanted to reserve available supplies for the health care community. It was still bad advice. It would have been better for them to be honest, and tell us that there was a shortage and the better path would be to reserve them for the health care community, until the shortage could be remedied. Actions like this will reduce the public’s willingness to accept their advice in the future, something they really don’t want to have happen.

Along those lines, I took a look at Amazon’s face mask offerings this morning. Many products were listed as being reserved for the health care community, while others that were listed as N95 compliant, and available. One interesting thing I noticed was that the vast majority of the available offerings were being shipped from China. The one that wasn’t, listed as being shipped from NY State was a new vendor, and therefore smacked of a hoarder who had just opened his doors. I did not place an order with any of them, though I was looking because I wanted to.

If the government wants us to trust them in this crisis, they need to tell us, with one voice (other than the Mis-speaker in Chief) both the good news and the bad news (full disclosure is important and nothing should be classified), and realistically let us know what they are doing about the bad along with time frame ranges about when they think progress will be made in those areas. Both sides are necessary. Leaving out the bad parts makes them less believable. Not having a comprehensive, total country plan (Florida being the example pointed out most recently) to curb the virus doesn’t speak well for them.

Then, when that is in place, work out how they will deal with the economic impact without cronyism (I would say appearance of, but we actually need a severe lack of cronyism) later. It looks like we have at least another 30 days of social distancing/shelter in place to look forward to which should allow them plenty of time to come up with something viable.

Along that 30 more days line, I think it is important that we do that, but I also don’t think it will stop the virus. I do think it will turn the trend of increased infections drastically downward. It will take longer than 30 days for them to come up with a viable vaccine, at the very least because of the length of time to do proper testing, even at accelerated rates.

This reminds me of a part of the Tibetan Memory Trick from Flo and Eddie but also known as the Announcers Test, and here is Jerry Lewis’s version.

"Ten lyrical, spherical, diabolical denizens of the deep who all stall around the corner of the quo of the quay of the quivery, all at the same time."

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Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Must be a better way than censorship?

When I see stuff like this, I can’t help wondering whether the best route is to not remove anything at all, but instead do something completely different instead.

For example flagging anything that appears to be against the preponderance of evidence available , e.g. a big banner with something like:
"This post appears to contain inaccurate information. Here are a number of links to reputable sources contradicting it"

That seems like something an algorithm could handle more accurately and even if not, the chilling effect of being wrong isn’t so dire and the conspiracy theorists can’t bitch so hard about censorship.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Re: Must be a better way than censorship?

Unfortunately doing nothing at all meads to the spread of misinformation.

I didn’t suggest doing nothing at all; I suggested an automated pointing out of the contradictory and ideally scientific evidence to try to drown out the loud morons rather than making them louder by attempting to smother them.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Must be a better way than censorship?

"That seems like something an algorithm could handle more accurately…"

Truly not. Algorithms can’t understand context, so any automated moderation WILL have very high failure rates.

And someone would have to write the algorithm and create a suitable index of links to use in response. That’s…basically an AI you’re looking for.

Not an Electronic Rodent (profile) says:

Re: Re: Must be a better way than censorship?

Truly not. Algorithms can’t understand context, so any automated moderation WILL have very high failure rates.

True enough, probably whether my idea worked or not, but that’s kind of the point. Even if it’s wrong, the worst you have done is flagged some competing opinions/facts/"facts" about something so the consequence of failure is significantly less.

And someone would have to write the algorithm and create a suitable index of links to use in response. That’s…basically an AI you’re looking for.

You could be right – I’ll admit it’s not my field of expertise – but it occurs to me that, for example, the existing Google algorithm is pretty good at ascertaining the prevailing world opinion/scientific evidence on many subjects already. The hard part may be teaching or giving it an idea of "legitimate sources" and worse who does that.

Is it perfect? Nope! Is it game-able? Yep. Would it still require a ton of human oversight and intervention? Hell yes. Would it be as huge a cluster-f**k as the current overt and very wrong censorship? Probably not. Again, you wouldn’t be removing anything, just pointing out contradictory evidence.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
OldMugwump (profile) says:

WHO is sending propaganda (very unwise decision)

Masks – even crappy home-made ones – are immensely better than no mask at all.


Unfortunately the WHO and CDC have decided to peddle half-truths (at best) in the (noble) effort to prevent hoarding and save masks for heath care workers.

Preventing hoarding is necessary, but undermining the trust in medical authorities is not going to end well.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: WHO is sending propaganda (very unwise decision)

"I know the author personally – he’s one of the smartest people I know and a MIT graduate. He did a careful analysis."

Key point being that it doesn’t take expert knowledge to realize that any filter in front of your mouth and nose is way better than none at all. All the filter has to do is to ensure aerosol droplets containing SARS-CoV-2 virii are prevented from entering the body.

Honestly, the WHO, CDC and Surgeon general read as if they’ve thought hard about some good general advice and came to the conclusion that John Q Doe is such an idiot s/he won’t be able to understand simple instructions longer than two sentences…

At best this is patronizing, at worst it means a lot of people will put blind faith in handwashing and end up contracting/spreading covid because the highest authority on pandemic-time safety completely dropped the ball on coming up with a coherent set of factual safety guidelines.

As you said, undermining trust in medical authority won’t end well.

Anonymous Coward says:

The thing about masks is there is no good evidence that wearing one will be effective at curbing an outbreak for the general public. In this very article you post two links, one goes to a medium article that provides the science of how masks work and WHY they should be effective, but no actual evidence proving the effectiveness. The other was a study done comparing the effectiveness of masks in blocking aerosol’s in a controlled environment. Neither of those links provides any evidence that wearing a mask to the grocery store or out on a walk is going to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Both can clearly speak to the fact that if some stranger walks up to you and coughs directly in your face then you stand a far better chance of preventing infection by wearing a mask or not, but that isn’t a everyday common activity.

You could compare it to a roll cage in a car. No one needs the roll cage in a car to go to work or get grocery even though it could conceivably save your life if you get into an accident. Sure masks are a lot cheaper and easier to use than a roll cage in a car, which is an argument that if you’ve got them they’re worth using, but anybody making a routine trip to the store following all legal and reasonable restrictions on driving in such an environment doesn’t need a roll cage to keep them safe.

I’ve yet to see anyone say a mask doesn’t filter out potentially hazardous particulate matter in the air. Nor have I seen anyone state that masks are ineffective in the right conditions. To say such would would be a lie. However nothing in this article or it’s link actually disputes the statements made by the CDC, WHO, or others in a similar message.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

There aren’t enough masks of any kind to go around. N95, surgical masks, anything. If you want to make your own mask or repurpose something you already have obviously go for it, but if you go out and buy any kind of mask (if that is even possible) that means someone else can’t buy it, so make sure you really need it before doing that. If supplies get to the point where anyone can have as many face masks as they want, then sure anyone should feel free to use them. Until that point they should go to the people who need them most.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re:

"The thing about masks is there is no good evidence that wearing one will be effective at curbing an outbreak for the general public."

Actually, there is. The most dangerous part about covid is the aerosol infection vector. anything which prevents droplets carrying virii from entering the mouth and nasal cavity will help. A lot.

"Both can clearly speak to the fact that if some stranger walks up to you and coughs directly in your face then you stand a far better chance of preventing infection by wearing a mask or not, but that isn’t a everyday common activity. "

That’s not how aerosol infection usually works, either. Current data suggests covid survives several hours in aerosol droplets. Meaning that if you step on board a bus, train car, or airplane where an infected person has been coughing half an hour before, that mask will remove a LOT of risk. A lot of the aerosol will not have settled on surfaces but remain airborne.

But there is another outright advantage of wearing a mask. That subconscious way many have of rubbing their noses, holding their chin, or putting a finger to their lips while thinking? Touching your face is part of normal body language in a thousand different ways, all of which now mean transporting virus particles from railings, door handles and bus/train handholds to your mouth and nose.

For the CDC and WHO to outright claim masks make no difference is, basically, an outright falsehood. To no point, as there is no need to dumb the message down quite that far.

Narcissus (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I think this is the best explanation I’ve seen so far as to why wearing masks is not adding much. I like the roll cage analogy.

I could expand this analogy a bit more: We know that people start to exhibit more risky behavior when they feel safe. So, the person with the roll cage in the car will start to drive more recklessly. It has been long established that all the new safety features in cars like airbags and seat belts have made (some of) us more risky drivers.

Similarly, people that are wearing masks will feel less vulnerable and they will also exhibit more risky behavior (wash hands less, keep less distance). Putting on mask requires you to touch your face a lot and also you need to know how to use them. So the effect of wearing the masks at a large scale is very likely minimal.

nasch (profile) says:

Re: Simple Answer

You do not moderate speech in the United States in accordance with the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

You seem to be confusing government action with private entity action. For some reason a common mistake when discussing the first amendment. Private entities, whether corporations or individuals, cannot violate the first amendment. Which is not to say it’s not allowed, but rather it’s not possible. No matter how hard a social media company tries, there is no way they can do it.

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