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Trump’s chloroquine hype is a misinformation problem bigger than social media

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Since late March, President Donald Trump has been promoting the antimalarial drugs chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine as treatments for the novel coronavirus. Among other things, he’s described “strong, powerful signs” that the drugs work and called them potentially “one of the biggest game-changers in the history of medicine.” That will be fantastic if it proves true, but right now, we have no idea. As the hype around the drugs has grown, it’s demonstrated that disinformation isn’t always a social media problem. And it’s forcing platforms and traditional media to grapple with preventing powerful people, not just anonymous trolls, from twisting the truth.

Researchers are still testing hydroxychloroquine, also sold under the name Plaquenil, as a COVID-19 treatment. There’s been a study with tentatively positive results (and some serious limitations), but also a few studies that show little to no therapeutic effect. Proponents have offered anecdotes about people who tried hydroxychloroquine as an experimental treatment and recovered, but those don’t definitively tell us whether the drug was responsible, especially while researchers know so little about the disease. There’s even less evidence that the drugs prevent COVID-19, despite an assertion made by Trump and others in the White House that doctors recommend “taking it before the fact.”

These repeated promises aren’t simply missteps or honest mistakes; in fact, they conflict with messaging from Trump’s own coronavirus task force. And while the president has at least kept his statements relatively vague, the general rush to hype the drugs has come into direct conflict with platforms’ medical misinformation policies.

Twitter recently removed a video from Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who asserted that the drugs were “working in all cases.” (It also removed Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro’s claim about a virus-stopping “brew.”) It took down tweets from Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who called the treatment “100 percent effective” after touting a New York doctor’s dubious claims about a cure, and Fox News host Laura Ingraham, who misleadingly described a patient’s “Lazarus”-like recovery. Facebook also removed the Bolsonaro video and flagged the “100 percent effective” claim as false.

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Web platforms often struggle to police rule-breaking posts by politicians. But as Bellingcat writes, these posts aren’t even a tricky moderation call: “doctors do not advise people to take chloroquine to treat or prevent the novel coronavirus, and so anyone saying otherwise is clearly spreading disinformation.” Services like Twitter and Facebook have typically given wide leeway to political figures, generously interpreting harassment or misinformation policies and — in Facebook’s case — arguing against fact-checking their ads. The coronavirus, however, has created a new sense of urgency and a greater threat of harm. Bad information about an ongoing pandemic can do immediate and tangible harm, so harsher moderation is easy to justify. But in this case, some of that misinformation is coming from the most powerful people in the world.

The bombastic promises about chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine have the hallmarks of a medical advice post from a sketchy Facebook page, but they aren’t dredged from the depths of the web. Wired credits much of the drug’s prominence to a more moderate online proposal written by a blockchain investor and lawyer, then circulated by — among other people — Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk. One of the authors discussed the drug on Fox News, where hosts like celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz have since promoted it more than 300 times by one count. Soon after that first appearance, Trump began talking about chloroquine. The hype got a little more pronounced with each step until it was not just a potential treatment but a nearly surefire cure.

Almost nobody in this saga fits the stereotype of a misinformation purveyor: someone who’s uninformed, undereducated, hopelessly internet-addled, a pill-hawking scammer, a Macedonian teenager, or a Russian troll. They’re successful businessmen, non-internet media, and the literal presidents of two countries. These are the metaphorical adults in the room — the categories of respectable gatekeepers who are supposed to be holding our consensus reality together. Instead, social media companies are taking the rare step of policing world leaders and other political figures.

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Twitter and Facebook spent the past several months trying to lay out policies for when politicians could lie on their platforms. TV broadcasters — which hold themselves to much higher editorial standards — are now trying to draw their own lines. CNN and MSNBC started cutting away from Trump’s confusing and sometimes factually incorrect speeches when they go off-topic. Advocacy group Free Press submitted a scorched-earth complaint to the Federal Communications Commission, urging it to investigate stations airing Trump’s false statements under the “broadcast hoaxes” ban. (The FCC denied the petition, declaring that “we will not censor the news.”) The request echoed the common calls to make platforms ban misinformation — but for a medium that’s not usually seen as a target for regulation.

There are long-standing complaints about Trump distorting the truth and media inadvertently amplifying his false statements. But this is a clarifying moment for outlets that have struggled to differentiate misinformation from political spin because this premature hype for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine treatments is so sustained, specific, and potentially harmful. At best, it misinforms people during a crisis. At worst, it encourages taking drastic measures to get these drugs, leading to tragic mistakes. One man died last month when a couple drank fish tank cleaner containing non-medicinal chloroquine phosphate. According to his wife, they got the idea after watching the press conferences on television, where “Trump kept saying [chloroquine] was basically pretty much a cure.”

Lots of clearly false claims are still spreading and mutating primarily online, including people selling fraudulent cures that couldn’t possibly work, not just ones that haven’t been proven effective. The chloroquine story, though, demonstrates the limits of discussing misinformation as a social media or critical thinking problem. It’s not a case of online mob mentality or a new technology gone wrong. It’s an entire information ecosystem straining under a few powerful people’s deliberate disregard for the truth.

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The idea of social media companies keeping elected officials and TV networks in check seems completely backward, but that’s what has happened here and probably not for the last time. It’s a blow to the idea that we can return from the chaos of social media to a simpler era of trustworthy, centralized media or authority figures. But it’s also a heartening sign that disinformation policies are getting applied to everyone — not just the less powerful.

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Meta’s Developing and ‘Ethical Framework’ for the Use of Virtual Influencers

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Meta's Developing and 'Ethical Framework' for the Use of Virtual Influencers


With the rise of digital avatars, and indeed, fully digital characters that have evolved into genuine social media influencers in their own right, online platforms now have an obligation to establish clear markers as to what’s real and what’s not, and how such creations can be used in their apps.

The coming metaverse shift will further complicate this, with the rise of virtual depictions blurring the lines of what will be allowed, in terms of representation. But with many virtual influencers already operating, Meta is now working to establish ethical boundaries on their application.

As explained by Meta:

From synthesized versions of real people to wholly invented “virtual influencers” (VIs), synthetic media is a rising phenomenon. Meta platforms are home to more than 200 VIs, with 30 verified VI accounts hosted on Instagram. These VIs boast huge follower counts, collaborate with some of the world’s biggest brands, fundraise for organizations like the WHO, and champion social causes like Black Lives Matter.”

Some of the more well-known examples on this front are Shudu, who has more than 200k followers on Instagram, and Lil’ Miquela, who has an audience of over 3 million in the app.

At first glance, you wouldn’t necessarily realize that this is not an actual person, which makes such characters a great vehicle for brand and product promotions, as they can be utilized 24/7, and can be placed into any environment. But that also leads to concerns about body image perception, deepfakes, and other forms of misuse through false or unclear representation.

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Deepfakes, in particular, may be problematic, with Meta citing this campaign, with English football star David Beckham, as an example of how new technologies are evolving to expand the use of language, as one element, for varying purpose.

The well-known ‘DeepTomCruise’ account on TikTok is another example of just how far these technologies have come, and it’s not hard to imagine a scenario where they could be used to, say, show a politician saying or doing something that he or she actually didn’t, which could have significant real world impacts.

Which is why Meta is working with developers and experts to establish clearer boundaries on such use – because while there is potential for harm, there are also beneficial uses for such depictions.

Imagine personalized video messages that address individual followers by name. Or celebrity brand ambassadors appearing as salespeople at local car dealerships. A famous athlete would make a great tutor for a kid who loves sports but hates algebra.

Such use cases will increasingly become the norm as VR and AR technologies are developed, with these platforms placing digital characters front and center, and establishing new norms for digital connection.

It would be better to know what’s real and what’s not, and as such, Meta needs clear regulations to remove dishonest depictions, and enforce transparency over VI use.

But then again, much of what you see on Instagram these days is not real, with filters and editing tools altering people’s appearance well beyond what’s normal, or realistic. That can also have damaging consequences, and while Meta’s looking to implement rules on VI use, there’s arguably a case for similar transparency in editing tools applied to posted videos and images as well.

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That’s a more complex element, particularly as such tools also enable people to feel more comfortable in posting, which no doubt increases their in-app activity. Would Meta be willing to put more focus on this element if it could risk impacting user engagement? The data on the impact of Instagram on people’s mental health are pretty clear, with comparison being a key concern.

Should that also come under the same umbrella of increased digital transparency?

It’s seemingly not included in the initial framework as yet, but at some stage, this is another element that should be examined, especially given the harmful effects that social media usage can have on young women.

But however you look at it, this is no doubt a rising element of concern, and it’s important for Meta to build guardrails and rules around the use of virtual influencers in their apps.

You can read more about Meta’s approach to virtual influencers here.





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Meta Publishes New Guide to the Various Security and Control Options in its Apps

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Meta Publishes New Guide to the Various Security and Control Options in its Apps


Meta has published a new set of safety tips for journalists to help them protect themselves in the evolving online connection space, which, for the most part, also apply to all users more broadly, providing a comprehensive overview of the various tools and processes that it has in place to help people avoid unwanted attention online.

The 32-page guide is available in 21 different languages, and provides detailed overviews of Meta’s systems and profile options for protection and security, with specific sections covering Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp.

The guide begins with the basics, including password protections and enabling two-factor authentication.

It also outlines tips for Page managers in securing their business profiles, while there are also notes on what to do if you’ve been hacked, advice for protection on Messenger and guidance on bullying and harassment.

Meta security guide

For Instagram, there are also general security tips, along with notes on its comment moderation tools.

Meta security guide

While for WhatsApp, there are explainers on how to delete messages, how to remove messages from group chats, and details on platform-specific data options.

Meta security guide

There are also links to various additional resource guides and tools for more context, providing in-depth breakdowns of when and how to action the various options.

It’s a handy guide, and while there are some journalist-specific elements included, most of the tips do apply to any user, so it could well be a valuable resource for anyone looking to get a better handle on your various privacy tools and options.

Definitely worth knowing either way – you can download the full guide here.

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Twitter bans account linked to Iran leader over video threatening Trump

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Twitter bans account linked to Iran leader over video threatening Trump


Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with relatives of slain commander Qasem Soleimani ahead of the second anniverary of his death in a US drone strike in Iraq – Copyright POOL/AFP/File Tom Brenner

Twitter said Saturday it had permanently suspended an account linked to Iran’s supreme leader that posted a video calling for revenge for a top general’s assassination against former US president Donald Trump.

“The account referenced has been permanently suspended for violating our ban evasion policy,” a Twitter spokesperson told AFP.

The account, @KhameneiSite, this week posted an animated video showing an unmanned aircraft targeting Trump, who ordered a drone strike in Baghdad two years ago that killed top Iranian commander General Qassem Soleimani.

Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s main accounts in various languages remain active. Last year, another similar account was suspended by Twitter over a post also appearing to reference revenge against Trump.

The recent video, titled “Revenge is Definite”, was also posted on Khamenei’s official website.

According to Twitter, the company’s top priority is keeping people safe and protecting the health of the conversation on the platform.

The social media giant says it has clear policies around abusive behavior and will take action when violations are identified.

As head of the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Soleimani was the architect of its strategy in the Middle East.

He and his Iraqi lieutenant were killed by a US drone strike outside Baghdad airport on January 3, 2020.

Khamenei has repeatedly promised to avenge his death.

On January 3, the second anniversary of the strike, the supreme leader and ultraconservative President Ebrahim Raisi once again threatened the US with revenge.

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Trump’s supporters regularly denounce the banning of the Republican billionaire from Twitter, underscoring that accounts of several leaders considered authoritarian by the United States are allowed to post on the platform.



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