Science Feedback is a not-for-profit organization that works with a network of scientists all over the world to verify influential claims and media coverage, so that internet users have access to scientifically sound information. The coronavirus has brought them a lot of extra work. I caught up with the founder and Ashoka Fellow Emmanuel Vincent, a scientist with a PhD from the University Pierre et Marie Curie and a post doc Fellowship at the MIT. He called in from his apartment in Paris.
Emmanuel, what Covid-19 related fake news have you stumbled across today?
Let me check what we’ve discussed today with the team – we stumble across fake news everyday, all the time, but today…. okay, here it is: That Covid-19 is caused by 5G – that’s really big on social media right now, people speak about it all the time. Here is another popular one: it’s a claim that says that people who get a flu shot are more likely to be tested positive for or get the coronavirus. Many of these claims we’ve already fact checked. But it’s interesting that the claims diversify: For 5G, for instance, some say 5G creates the virus, some say there’s no virus at all, the symptoms are caused by 5G alone, and so on.
Who perpetuates these claims?
There are blogs and websites like Natural News that are known for misinformation, where we see false claims pop up again and again. Then there are individuals who get famous on YouTube and just upload their content to their channel. But we also see ‘real’ newspapers take up unfounded claims – in late February, for instance, the NY Post perpetuated the claim that Covid-19 was released from a research lab. And then there’s ordinary citizens who amplify false claims. A poll in France revealed that 26 % of the French population thinks the coronavirus is a bioweapon manufactured by either the Chinese or Americans. The scientific credibility of this claim is low to very low.
But it has real life consequences.
Yes, we have seen threats of violence towards colleagues in China. Yesterday I read that some people in the UK burnt 5G towers.
What and how do you fact-check?
We monitor what information is trending across social media. And when it looks like questionable information is going to go viral, we act on it. We work with leading scientists from all over the world to fact check all these claims very carefully. The process we use is modeled on the scientific peer-review process. We ask a range of scientists in our network, – from Duke to Harvard to MIT to ENA to NTU Singapore to WHO – to review the article in question, to evaluate the credibility of the content and to come to a conclusion. The colleagues work on it, research, take apart inferences and claims, and within 48 hours send us their work. We combine their information and write a summary review. In this way, we explain for instance that there’s no need to invoke that the virus has been manufactured, because it already existed in almost identical form in wildlife. So it is highly highly likely a farmer or someone else handling animals got infected.
What happens once you reached your conclusion? Can you actually change minds?
Well, our main intervention is to try and prevent things from getting more viral. We publish the results on our websites, and we work with social media sites. On Facebook, for instance, an overlay indicates posts we identified as false. People are less likely to share these. Also, our fact checks come up high in search engine rankings. What is positive from the current crisis is that we’re seeing that social platforms are realizing more and more that they cannot do nothing against false claims and they intervene more in terms of what is being promoted via their algorithms. This is crucial for public health.
Can you help speed this process up?
Yes, what we’re working on right now – in collaboration with other fact checkers – is to detect patterns and build a database of websites and social media accounts frequently sharing misinformation to better understand how false claims appear across the web. We know that some organizations spread misinformation across platforms; and Facebook, Twitter, YouTube etc need to collaborate to identify the accounts and tactics that spread misinformation the most.
One last question, back to Covid-19: Have you fact checked the claim that Hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria-drug, is effective in combating the virus?
We’re following this discussion closely and we will know more in a few weeks. Currently, a couple of proper clinical trials are being conducted, with random samples of people and control groups. As the evidence is right now, it is inconclusive for both sides. We don’t know whether people who got the drug feel better because of the medicine or whether they feel better at the normal rate. Is it a correlation or a cause-effect? For sure, statements that claim Hydroxychloroquine is a miracle cure with 100% recovery are wrong. That is not what the data shows.
Follow Emmanuel’s work on Twitter @ScienceFeedback
Emmanuel Vincent completed a PhD at the University Pierre et Marie Curie (Paris, France) and a post-doctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT; Cambridge, USA), studying how the Ocean controls Hurricane intensity and how Hurricane can in turn influence the climate via their interaction with the Ocean. He launched Science Feedback to help the scientific community play a leading role in providing the public with accurate information on scientific topics.
Konstanze Frischen leads Ashoka’s new global Technology & Humanity initiative, and runs Ashoka’s North America program. She’s currently based in Washington, D.C. She has worked as a journalist for many years, writing for CNN and Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, among others. You can follow her on Twitter at @kafrischen