Facebook greatest source of Covid-19 disinformation, journalists say

The majority of journalists covering the pandemic say Facebook is the biggest spreader of disinformation, outstripping elected officials who are also a top source, according to an international survey of journalism and Covid-19.

The social media platform, which announced this week it was updating its hate speech policy to ban content that denies or distorts the Holocaust, was identified by 66% of journalists surveyed as the main source of “prolific disinformation”.

Despite 82% reporting the misinformation to Facebook, and its other platforms WhatsApp and Instagram, which also spread fake news, almost half said they were unhappy with the response.

Twitter, YouTube and Google Search also frequently spread disinformation about Covid-19, the survey conducted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) and the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University found.

The pandemic project was launched in April 2020 to study the impacts of the coronavirus crisis on journalism worldwide and to collect evidence-based suggestions to inform the recovery.

“The first 30 findings from our English language survey are both startling and disturbing,” said author and Australian academic Julie Posetti, the global director of research at ICFJ. “Based on an analysis of 1,406 vetted survey completions during the pandemic’s first wave, we can conclude that many journalists covering this devastating human story, at great personal risk, were clearly struggling to cope.”

Almost half of the respondents, drawn from the US, the UK, India, Nigeria and Brazil, nominated politicians and elected officials as the second top source of disinformation after social media. The lack of trust in government agencies was also prevalent.

The survey backs up findings published in August that websites spreading misinformation about health attracted nearly half a billion views on Facebook in April alone, as the coronavirus pandemic escalated worldwide.

Facebook had promised to crack down on conspiracy theories and inaccurate news early in the pandemic but fuelled traffic to a network of sites sharing dangerous false news.

Journalism is one of the worst affected industries during the pandemic as hundreds of jobs have been lost and outlets closed in Australia alone.

Ninety per cent of journalists surveyed said their media company had implemented austerity measures including job losses, salary cuts and outlet closures.

Earlier this year News Corp Australia closed more than 100 local and regional newspapers or made them digital-only, cutting about 500 staff.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the newspaper industry has lost more than 50% of its employees since 2001, and Covid has sped up the decline.

The most pressing need was financial help to pay salaries and keep afloat, followed by mental health support, the journalists surveyed said.

“Many journalists were struggling to cope with the mental, physical, personal and professional impacts of the crisis during the first wave of COVID-19,” the report said.