The aftermath of covid disinformation in Latin America

9 minutes
The aftermath of covid disinformation in Latin America

There was a time when videos accusing foreign governments or billionaires of being behind the pandemic went viral on Facebook and Instagram. It was the same time when uncertainty about the coronavirus gave rise to promises of miracle cures being promoted or sold under the promise of preventing or treating the disease. To address the disinformation unleashed by the pandemic, Meta relied in part on its program of fact-checkers, who were exposed to coordinated threats and harassment as they struggled to counter such content in Latin America.

This was stated in a document published last week by Meta's Oversight Board, a body that guides and supervises the company in matters of content moderation. After the emergency subsided, in June last year Meta asked the Council for guidance on how it should proceed in the future with regard to this type of disinformation.

Several months later, after consulting with health authorities and experts in different regions of the world,* the Council issued its advisory opinion. Among other relevant information, the considerations of these meetings -which are published in the report- show the negative effects that the strategy of the data verifier program had on its allies in Latin America.

During the health emergency, Meta, like the other social media, was forced to develop new rules on the fly to tackle every new false theory about the disease or vaccines that gained traction and put users at risk. The balance was a series of more than 80 types of content that the platform could remove, from denying the existence of the pandemic to ensuring that vaccines contain "the mark of the beast."

Meta delegated to its program of independent fact-checkers (a network of organizations certified by the International Fact-Checking Network) the responsibility of handling those publications that did not qualify for removal, but that could be problematic anyway.

Under this system, which is still in place for other types of misinformation, fact-checkers review content and classify it according to whether it is false or misleading. With that input, Meta tags posts with a label that alerts about the inaccuracy of the information and links it to a fact-checking article on the topic. In case a user wants to appeal a label applied to its content, the procedure is not done in front of the company -as it happens with the other sanctions- but directly before the organization. but directly with the organization that verified the information.

In a context such as that of Latin America, and especially Brazil, where disinformation on covid was highly politicized, Meta's approach of putting complaining users in direct contact with those who flagged their content led to verifiers being subjected to harassment campaigns and threats that even forced some of them to leave their countries.

In the case of Brazil, where criticism of the verification work was aligned with the government of Jair Bolsonaro, the persecution also came in the form of millions of dollars in defamation lawsuits, wearing down the operation of the organizations and affecting their already fragile finances.

According to a public comment sent to the Council by Pablo Medina, researcher at the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP), these aggressions are related to Meta's confusing collaboration with its allies, as the verifiers ended up taking on the responsibility of explaining the company's policies to the public.

Although the pandemic has ceased to be a global concern, the way in which social media platforms reacted to this event leaves lessons to face new health crises that may come in the future and in which freedom of expression and user safety will again be in the balance, as well as strategies with allies to counteract misleading information.

In its advisory opinion, the Council asked Meta to continue to remove content that may pose imminent harm and to reevaluate with health authorities some of the rules it established during the pandemic. In addition, it should contract an audit to study the impact that its algorithms could have had on the amplification of covid-related misinformation.

Regarding the situation of the data verifiers, the Council recommended that appeals be reviewed by a different verifier than the one who checked the information in the first instance, and that any complaints be made through Meta's ordinary channels and not by direct contact with the organizations.

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* Green LanternCircuito, an organization of which Circuito is a member, organized for the Advisory Council the consultation table with civil society in Latin America.

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