UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers question tech attempts to stem coronavirus conspiracies

UK lawmakers questioned whether social media giants are doing enough to stop the spread of false information, after a conspiracy theory that 5G technology is contributing to the Covid-19 pandemic led to a spate of attacks on telecom masts and engineers.

Representatives from Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc’s Google and Twitter Inc were asked to appear before the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee on Thursday to explain how their companies are tackling disinformation. It didn’t go well.

“We will be writing to all of your organisations with a series of questions and, frankly, we will be expressing our displeasure at the quality of the answers – well, the lack of answers – we received today,” chairman Julian Knight concluded after more than an hour of questioning via conference call.

The Silicon Valley giants outlined measures they’ve taken to combat fake news, such as Facebook’s move to restrict WhatsApp message forwarding and promote official guidance on the pandemic. But the panel of British lawmakers often interjected bluntly and deemed the testimony unsatisfactory.

Legislators demanded to know how Twitter was cracking down on world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, if they spread misinformation. The company’s UK head of government relations, Katy Minshall, was also grilled about the prevalence of bots on the site, which are automated accounts that perform repetitive tasks, such as sharing fake news stories.

“We’re really proud of the progress we’ve made over the past couple of years,” said Minshall, responding to a question about online abuse.

“Well I don’t know why,” interrupted member of Parliament John Nicolson.

Google public policy manager Alina Dimofte was asked why YouTube didn’t tackle 5G conspiracy videos earlier. It banned such videos on April 7 after a spate of attacks on towers and telecom engineers.

‘Astonished’

MP Steve Brine said that, during the session, he found a Facebook post from his district inciting the destruction of a 5G mast, which has been baselessly linked to the spread of Covid-19.

More than 60 telecom masts have been attacked in the UK in the past few weeks as the theory has gained traction and even made it onto mainstream TV shows.

Brine added that he was “astonished” that Facebook’s UK Public Policy Manager Richard Earley had not personally discussed the issues with chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg or its vice president for global affairs and communication, Nick Clegg. Clegg is also the former UK deputy prime minister.

TikTok, the most downloaded app in the world outside of China during the crisis, avoided questioning. The relatively new social media site was not asked to appear despite also hosting conspiracy theories. – Bloomberg

5G conspiracies, DIY masks, homeschool advice, and more: Tech Q&A

5G conspiracies, DIY masks, homeschool advice, and more: Tech Q&A

Each week, I receive tons of questions from my listeners about tech concerns, new products, and all things digital.

Sometimes, choosing the most interesting questions to highlight is the best part of my job. This week, I received questions about homeschooling, fixing a computer without a technician, blocking social media, and more.

Do you have a question you’d like to ask me?

Tap or click here to email me directly. I read every email myself.

5G COVID-19 Fears

Q: I follow Woody Harrelson on Instagram and he says that 5G radio waves spread the coronavirus. This is frightening!

A: Woody Harrelson is an actor and entitled to believe whatever he wants. Based on the NIH research I have read and my 25 years in the tech industry, I’m confident that 5G signals and coronavirus have no tangible connection except that they’re both invisible to the human eye.

Harrelson’s assertion is only the latest in a wave of coronavirus conspiracy theories. My advice is always to consult the CDC first, using its social media channels to find the newest information. These are some of the foremost health experts in the world and only present facts that they consider settled science.

Tap or click here for more coronavirus conspiracy theories and research that refutes them.

No-Sew Masks

Q: You cannot buy masks anywhere online! I don’t know how to sew. Should I use a scarf or what?

A: Now that experts are encouraging us to cover our nose and mouth, no matter what our profession or where we live, disposable medical masks have become impossible to find. Even cheap carpentry masks, the kind you find at Home Depot, have been completely sold out.

Many households are making masks. Maybe you thought, “That sounds like a great idea, but I have no idea how to sew.” Worry not, there are easy ways to make protective masks without a needle and thread.

Tap or click here for the steps to make your own no-sew DIY mask.

Find Quality Tech Help

Q: I need help with my PC. Since no one can make house calls, what are my options?

A: With official restrictions on home visits, there’s no way to call a technician and quickly get your desktop up and running. What you need is a mature, dependable online forum where tech enthusiasts get together to converse and answer each other’s questions.

This is why I created the Komando Community, where tech enthusiasts can get together and share their knowledge. There are many other benefits to joining, and if you sign up now, use discount code “Thank you” for a free 30-day trial. But one of the biggest perks is that you can find like-minded individuals to help, many of whom are tech professionals and do this for a living!

Tap or click here to get your tech questions answered now.

Block Social Media

Q: I need to block Facebook during the day while I am working at home. Help!

A: For decades, freelancers and telecommuters have known how difficult it is to work from home. It sounds so fun and relaxing to sit on a sofa and type on a laptop. But when your personal space becomes your office, everything changes; the refrigerator is too available, the outdoors may call your name, and social media is constantly distracting you from the task at hand.

I can’t do anything about spring weather and mid-morning snacks, but I can help you switch off your social media platforms during work hours. While many of us can resist the siren song of Twitter and Instagram, social media is designed to be addictive. It becomes all the more so when you don’t have a supervisor looking over your shoulder.

Tap or click here to block WFH online distractions, including Facebook.

Set Parent Controls

Q: I used to tell my kids to get off their screens. Now, they need to be for school. How can I set limits?

A: Ever since smartphones and tablets hit the market, parents have wrung their hands over their children’s screen time. COVID-19 has forced millions of children to stay at home and use technology to connect with their teachers. Without that screen, there is no way to receive assignments and get feedback from the school.

We all have to adjust to this new normal – well, hopefully a “temporary normal” – but the good news is that there are ways to set time limits on specific sites and devices as well as prevent your child from accessing inappropriate content.

What digital lifestyle questions do you have? Call Kim’s national radio show and tap or click here to find it on your local radio station. You can listen to or watch The Kim Komando Show on your phone, tablet, television or computer. Or tap or click here for Kim’s free podcasts.

Copyright 2020, WestStar Multimedia Entertainment. All rights reserved.

Learn about all the latest technology on the Kim Komando Show, the nation’s largest weekend radio talk show. Kim takes calls and dispenses advice on today’s digital lifestyle, from smartphones and tablets to online privacy and data hacks. For her daily tips, free newsletters and more, visit her website at Komando.com.

Coronavirus: Tech firms summoned over 'crackpot' 5G conspiracies

Coronavirus: Tech firms summoned over ‘crackpot’ 5G conspiracies

MastsImage copyright
Getty Images

The culture secretary is to order social media companies to be more aggressive in their response to conspiracy theories linking 5G networks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Oliver Dowden plans to hold virtual meetings with representatives from several tech firms next week to discuss the matter.

It follows a number of 5G masts apparently being set on fire.

The issue will test the companies’ commitments to free speech.

“We have received several reports of criminal damage to phone masts and abuse of telecoms engineers apparently inspired by crackpot conspiracy theories circulating online,” a spokeswoman for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport told the BBC, referring to incidents in Birmingham, Liverpool and elsewhere.

“Those responsible for criminal acts will face the full force of the law.

“We must also see social media companies acting responsibly and taking much swifter action to stop nonsense spreading on their platforms which encourages such acts.”

DCMS has yet to confirm which tech companies are being summoned.

‘Complete rubbish’

False theories are being spread on smaller platforms such as Nextdoor, Pinterest and the petitions site Change.org as well as larger ones including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok.

Scientists have said the idea of a connection between Covid-19 and 5G is “complete rubbish” and biologically impossible.

Several of the platforms have already taken steps to address the problem but have not banned discussion of the subject outright.

Pinterest, for example, limits its search results for coronavirus and related terms to showing pinned information from recognised health organisations but does not have a comparable restriction for 5G.

Facebook said it had also removed a number of groups that were encouraging attacks on 5G masts.

However, a post entitled “burn baby burn – it’s begun”, which accompanied videos of telecoms equipment ablaze, has been allowed to remain online at this time.

Change.org said its open nature allowed anyone to set up a petition about any issue they cared about, but added they must comply with its guidelines to stay online.

“We have removed a number of petitions making unsubstantiated health claims about 5G from the platform,” a spokeswoman added.

Vodafone, one of the networks affected, has said the attacks are “now a matter of national security”.

Image copyright
Reuters

“It beggars belief that some people should want to harm the very networks that are providing essential connectivity to the emergency services, the NHS, and rest of the country during this difficult lockdown period,” wrote UK chief executive Nick Jeffery.

“It also makes me angry to learn that some people have been abusing our engineers as they go about their business.

“Online stories connecting the spread of coronavirus to 5G are utterly baseless. Please don’t share them on social media – fake news can have serious consequences.”

The campaign against 5G has been flourishing on social media for the last year.

Facebook in particular has been full of groups claiming the technology is dangerous, with many of them also pushing anti-vaccine messages.

Until recently, apart from the odd fact-checking message alongside posts, the companies have done little to combat this trend. Neither Twitter nor YouTube, for instance, has an option in their reporting systems to flag misinformation.

Even on Friday, complaints to Facebook moderators about a group that appeared to encourage arson attacks on 5G masts received replies saying the page did “not violate our community standards” – although after the BBC contacted Facebook’s press office it was taken down.

In normal times, social media platforms are very reluctant to curb what they regard as an essential part of their mission: giving people the right to free expression, however outlandish or unscientific their views.

But these are not normal times.

The government is effectively waging a war against a deadly virus, and keyworkers looking after vital infrastructure are facing abuse, possibly inspired by these social media campaigners.

That means there is now intense pressure on the likes of Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter to combat what one minister has called “dangerous nonsense” – and they will want to be seen to be acting responsibly, even if some of their users cry censorship.

Coronavirus conspiracies go viral on Whatsapp as crisis deepens - Latest News

Coronavirus conspiracies go viral on Whatsapp as crisis deepens – Latest News

A viral outbreak in the Dutch city of Utrecht last week infected more than 60 people in less than hour. Unlike the coronavirus, however, the infection happened on WhatsApp.

Messages telling people to drink hot soup to stop coronavirus, or to test for infection by holding their breath for 15 seconds, were shared between friends and relatives in a matter of minutes, contradicting official medical advice.

Ivonne Hoek, 63, said she received the message from a friend shortly after 11 a.m., who said they were sent it by a neighbour who works in a hospital. Alarmed, she promptly forwarded it to her two children. With the click of a button at 11:36, her son, Tim, sent it to his entire 65-person Frisbee team.

“I probably wouldn’t have paid any attention to this if I’d seen it from a stranger on Facebook. But I trust my mum very much,” 35-year-old told Tim van Caubergh told Reuters.

“I shared it because it came from a trusted source … that is how these things happen.”

The coronavirus crisis, which has killed almost 9,000 people worldwide and threatened economic misery for millions more, has been accompanied by what the World Health Organization (WHO) has called an “infodemic” of misinformation.

Twitter followed social media competitor Facebook on Wednesday in barring users from posting misleading information about the coronavirus, including denials of expert guidance and encouragement of fake treatments.

CHAT CONTENT HARD TO POLICE

But the rapid spread of one such message in the Netherlands shows the challenges faced by private chat platforms, such as text messages or Facebook-owned WhatsApp, where content is harder to police and often perceived as coming from a trusted source when shared by friends and family.

“I think there’s a sense of security and community that exists in these group chats that gives anything shared there a mark of authenticity,” said Anna-Sophie Harling, head of Europe for the U.S.-based misinformation monitoring centre NewsGuard.

“People can quickly send and resend images, text and voice notes, and it all happens in private, making it really, really difficult to counteract those claims.”

WhatsApp has previously restricted the number of people to whom users can forward messages after viral rumours on its platform triggered a wave of mass beatings and deaths in India in 2018.

WhatsApp, which has over 2 billion users worldwide, said on Wednesday it had partnered with the WHO and other U.N. agencies to launch a service for sharing official health guidance about coronavirus.

WhatsApp chief Will Cathcart said the platform had also donated $1 million to factchecking organisations “to support their life-saving work to debunk rumours.”

Despite the moves and official warnings, viral messages touting conspiracy theories and phoney medical advice have continued to spread online, raising alarm about the supposed dangers of infection from 5G phone masts or eating ice cream.

Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at Oxford University’s Project on Computational Propaganda, said such misinformation could hamper efforts to control the spread of the virus.

“From my own experience, yes I do think this has an impact,” she said. “I know educated people that are heeding inaccurate medical advice they have seen shared on social media and in private messages.”