LONDON — Facebook said Thursday it would start sending tailor-made warnings to users highlighting facts about the coronavirus pandemic, after the world's leading social media platform was accused of tolerating the spread of outlandish conspiracy theories.
The US giant has already been publishing fact-checking articles about the global outbreak through its partnerships with media organisations, including one with AFP.
"We will also soon begin showing messages in News Feed to people who previously engaged with harmful misinformation related to COVID-19 that we've since removed, connecting them with accurate information," chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement.
The messages will pop up in the relevant language for users who have previously "liked", shared or commented on virus disinformation, and point them to myth-busting facts compiled by the World Health Organization (WHO).
Leveraging the US company's global reach, the WHO on Wednesday launched a chatbot on Facebook Messenger, to convey up-to-date information about COVID-19.
Facebook's new service goes beyond the warnings that the company slapped on about 40 million posts related to the virus in March alone, following reviews of the posts by independent fact-checkers such as AFP.
"When people saw those warning labels, 95 percent of the time they did not go on to view the original content," Zuckerberg said.
Another program called Get The Facts highlights coronavirus articles on Facebook written by fact-checking partners.
Among recent articles by AFP's Fact Check service, one countered the idea that garlic is an effective treatment against COVID-19. Another refuted theories that the virus is somehow rooted in 5G telecommunications.
Facebook said that on its main site and on Instagram, more than 350 million of its two billion users had now clicked through to a dedicated coronavirus information centre since its launch last month.
The company has also limited the number of times users can forward messages on its WhatsApp platform, to curb disinformation.
Well before the current crisis, Facebook had been under pressure from governments and regulators for peddling fake news and violating users' privacy.
European Commission vice president Vera Jourova welcomed the new measures, which she noted came after a series of contacts between Facebook and EU representatives.
But Jourova also called for more transparency and data-sharing by the company, "to be able to assess Facebook's actions from the perspectives of both public health and fundamental rights."
The enhanced warnings were also welcomed by online activist group Avaaz, which like other critics has accused Facebook of dragging its feet even when users' posts clearly impart fake or harmful content.
"Facebook sits at the epicenter of the misinformation crisis. But the company is turning a critical corner today to clean up this toxic information ecosystem," said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.
He called on Facebook to do more to ensure factual messages are delivered consistently in languages other than English, and to take down problematic posts far more quickly.
"People at risk from measles misinformation, anti-vaccine misinformation, or political disinformation also deserve protection," Quran added.
AFP currently works with Facebook's fact-checking program in more than 30 countries and 12 languages.
Under the program, which started in December 2016, Facebook pays to use fact-checks from organisations including media outlets and specialized verifiers on its platform and on Instagram.
Under another partnership announced Thursday, Facebook users in France will be offered new educational videos about the coronavirus made by AFP journalists.
"It is essential we continue to help the public identify reliable and trustworthy sources of information at such a crucial time," AFP's Global News Director Phil Chetwynd said. — AFP