White House Meets With Tech Firms on Coronavirus Response

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(Bloomberg) -- White House officials discussed combating online misinformation about the coronavirus and other measures during a teleconference Wednesday with tech companies including Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios led the call, which also included representatives from Amazon.com Inc., Apple Inc., Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines Corp. and other companies and tech trade groups.

The discussion focused on information-sharing with the federal government, coordination regarding telehealth and online education and the creation of new tools to help researchers review scholarship, according to a statement from the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy.

“Cutting edge technology companies and major online platforms will play a critical role in this all-hands-on-deck effort,” Kratsios said in a statement. He said his office would unveil a database of research on the virus in coming days.

Officials from the Labor Department, Health and Human Services Department, Education Department, National Institutes of Health and other federal agencies also joined the call.

Researchers and journalists have documented many cases of misinformation about the virus spreading online. Social media companies have been trying to tackle it, with a particular focus on false health information.

Three of the most influential internet platforms -- Google, Facebook and Twitter -- are all sending users who search for information on the virus to health authorities such as the CDC and WHO, and donating ad inventory to health organizations and key NGOs.

Google is also blocking ads “capitalizing” on the virus. On YouTube, the company is taking down “content that claims to prevent the coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment.”

Facebook has begun removing fake claims and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus, in a move that goes beyond the site’s practice of labeling suspect information on other topics. The company said it would “remove content with false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities that could cause harm to people who believe them.” In January, Facebook said one spurious claim that had been circulating was the assertion that drinking bleach would cure the virus.

Facebook is continuing its fact-checking with independent third-party partners as well, notifying users who may have shared inaccurate prevention tips and disseminating verified advice.

It has also banned ads and listings for face masks, and it has prohibited advertisements that are “exploiting the situation” on both Instagram and Facebook. On Instagram, it is “blocking or restricting hashtags being used to spread misinformation.”

Twitter, meanwhile, said Wednesday it is “not seeing significant coordinated” effort to manipulate information around the virus on the platform.

Later on Wednesday, Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, wrote a letter to Vice President Mike Pence saying the administration had failed to counter disinformation about coronavirus, adding that, “of even greater concern, false or misleading information has also come directly from prominent members of the Administration, up to and including the President.”

Warner cited several examples of misleading comments by President Trump, including the president’s assertion that the World Health Organization’s estimates of the virus’s deadliness were false. A spokesperson for the White House had no comment.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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