clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Facebook and Twitter are struggling to get coronavirus disinformation details from the government

The State Department seems unusually secretive in its reports on coronavirus disinformation.

A woman wearing a face mask in a New York City train station on March 5, 2020.
The US State Department has accused Russia of spreading fear, panic, and conspiracy theories about coronavirus online, but little is known about exactly how.
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

State Department officials are claiming that disinformation related to the coronavirus — including some pushed by Russia — is rampant across popular social media platforms. But the government seems cagey about reporting the details to the companies involved.

According to accounts from several social media platforms, the State Department has been reluctant to share evidence of disinformation, making it difficult for Americans to know what to look out for. As the novel coronavirus outbreak has grown in recent weeks, the State Department has informed the press of conspiracy theories about the outbreak that are being spread on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Many of the accounts spreading these theories appear to be from Russia, the State Department says.

But social media companies like Facebook and Twitter initially struggled to get copies of the government’s reports on the matter, even after they were publicly discussed in the press. The companies now have that information, but Facebook is asking the government for more evidence supporting its claims. Meanwhile, Twitter says it hasn’t found any significant evidence of coordinated efforts to spread misinformation related to the coronavirus on its site, such as Russian disinformation.

The State Department’s apparent reluctance to share with Facebook and Twitter the hard evidence behind their reports comes at a time when President Trump is more strictly controlling public health agencies’ ability to share information with the public about the outbreak itself.

On February 23, the Agence Press-France (AFP) quoted a State Department official saying that the government had found “thousands of false social media personas” pushing the same false conspiracy theories about the US intentionally causing the outbreak. The posts included claims that American officials released the coronavirus in order to wage an economic war on China, and many of these accounts seemed to be linked to Russia.

The Washington Post also obtained a copy of a US State Department report that identified about 2 million tweets containing misinformation. Among the 29 million foreign content posts reviewed by the State Department, the report noted, some exhibited “evidence of inauthentic and coordinated activity.” However, according to the Post, the report lacked evidence of coordinated activity from foreign governments and did not provide examples of specific accounts that were tweeting out conspiracies. It also didn’t specifically mention Russia.

Beyond the broad outline from these two reports and a separate testimony from a state department official at a recent Senate subcommittee hearing, the details of the unclassified material remains unclear. That’s left social media platforms, namely Facebook and Twitter, asking the government for more information. Presumably, more clarity from the government could help the companies track misinformation on their platforms so they could take down any foreign-linked accounts that intend to sow discord.

Seemingly contradicting the State Department’s findings, Twitter says it hasn’t identified significant efforts by coordinated actors to spread misinformation about the coronavirus. Several days after the State Department made a public statement about the matter, the two social media giants said they still had not been briefed about the findings. Facebook and Twitter have also asked for more evidence to support the State Department’s analysis.

The State Department did not respond to Recode’s questions about the reports or its employees’ response to the controversy.

The obscurity around what the State Department has disclosed about misinformation relating to the coronavirus reflects larger issues about how the government is sharing information about the outbreak. Some leaders, including Sen. Cory Booker, are questioning the State Department’s rationale for not revealing more, especially because the reports are not classified.

“Why not get that information out there? Doesn’t that help to discredit the activities in it of themselves?” Booker said in a recent Senate hearing on global disinformation.

Selectively sharing information appears to be part of the government’s strategy in countering disinformation. The head of the State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), which fights propaganda and disinformation intended to damage the US, told members of Congress on Thursday that releasing the non-classified reports could serve to advantage US adversaries.

“We don’t want to share our tradecraft with our adversaries,” Lea Gabrielle, special envoy for the GEC and a former Fox News reporter, told Sen. Booker. “We’ve intentionally made a lot of these reports at an unclassified level so that we can share them with our partners and allies, which is important in exposing. But the zeroes and ones of how we’re doing the work, that’s not important in terms of best practices in countering disinformation.”

Gabrielle also said, “Sometimes it makes sense to share those reports, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

False information and conspiracy theories related to the coronavirus remain a significant problem that’s forced platforms including Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube to make efforts to promote accurate information about the illness. The World Health Organization has called the crisis an “infodemic.”

What hasn’t been proven yet, at least publicly, is exactly which conspiracy theories, if any, are being intentionally spread by foreign governments such as Russia. Russia’s government has so far denied being involved in any disinformation campaigns.

“It is a deliberate fake,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told Russian state news agency Tass earlier this month.

But the agency’s approach appears to have left Twitter and Facebook in the dark.

On February 28, Facebook head of cybersecurity Nathaniel Gleicher said at a security conference in San Francisco that his company has “asked for any evidence that supports” the claims in the State Department’s report on coronavirus disinformation from foreign governments, but it hasn’t “received anything yet.”

In a statement to Recode, Facebook said the State Department still had not shared evidence with the social media giant.

“We have asked the State Department to share the evidence behind their report and they have not done so. If and when they do, we will prioritize its review as part of our ongoing effort to monitor for coronavirus-related information operations, and we’ll announce if we find anything,” a Facebook spokesperson told Recode, while emphasizing that the company will continue to remove coronavirus-related content that “causes harm.”

A spokesperson for Twitter declined to directly comment on the report and, in general, questioned the validity of non-peer-reviewed research.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread, we should expect that misinformation will continue to spread. It’s possible that some of that misinformation may be exploited by foreign actors, as the State Department has claimed. But unless the strategy of the State Department changes, we shouldn’t expect to see everything about what US intelligence officials have flagged as foreign propaganda. And companies like Facebook and Twitter may continue to dispute the severity of these threats.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.