The world’s leading tech companies have issued a joint statement on their combined efforts to tackle misinformation during the coronavirus crisis.
Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and Reddit published a statement on Monday saying that they are all working closely on response efforts.
The firms have said they are helping people stay connected during periods of self isolation, while also fighting misinformation that may appear on their platforms.
Exact details of the new collaboration are scarce as the pandemic, which has killed more than 7,100 people worldwide, causes disruption in Europe and the US.
The announcement comes as the UK government has been criticised for taking too long to address the problem of misinformation online.
Its specialist Counter Disinformation Unit, established last week specifically to stop misinformation during the crisis, comes almost two months after the first UK case.
Google joins Facebook, Microsoft, LinkedIn and Reddit, among others, in a pact to work together to combat fraud and misinformation
‘We are working closely together on COVID-19 response efforts,’ the statement, posted to the various technology firms’ social media accounts, reads.
‘We’re helping millions of people stay connected while also jointly combating fraud and misinformation about the virus, elevating authoritative content on our platforms, and sharing critical updates in coordination with government healthcare agencies around the world.
‘We invite other companies to join us as we work to keep our communities healthy and safe.’
Google has also previously teamed up with the WHO to launch an SOS Alert dedicated to the coronavirus
Google, Facebook and Microsoft have all been contacted regarding the specifics of the joint response effort.
The companies have previously introduced their own policies for staff and users, including work-from-home policies and the removal of exploitative ads.
Social media firms and health agencies have warned about disinformation and conspiracy theories linked to the virus online.
These include misleading adverts and posts promoting homeopathic treatments which claim to cure the illness.
A Twitter account posing as a hospital which posted inaccurate information about coronavirus cases was also reported by the health service and removed by Twitter.
The government’s new Counter Disinformation Unit will be working with social media platforms to monitor and remove disinformation and conspiracy theories linked to COVID-19.
But MPs have questioned why it’s only just been set up, almost two months after the first case was confirmed in the UK.
‘We’ve known since January about deliberate attempts to spread fear and falsehoods on social media about coronavirus, with potentially serious outcomes,’ said Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport chairman Julian Knight.
‘We support the government’s decision to tackle disinformation and misinformation about COVID-19 at this critical time but question why it has taken so long for ministers to set this up.
‘We want reassurance that the Counter Disinformation Unit will be working closely with social media companies to ensure that people receive vitally important and accurate information and can trust what they see online.’
There have been more than 170,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus worldwide, with more than 6,600 deaths
In separate statements over the past weeks, big tech companies have been outlining their individual efforts to help its users during the crisis.
Facebook says it has been limiting misinformation and harmful content about COVID-19, partly by banning ads ‘intended to create panic’ or take advantage of the pandemic to boost sales.
Tech company office closures: How many are affected?
Microsoft: The company has asked its employees in its San Francisco Bay and Seattle HQ offices to work from home if they can do so.
The Seattle campus has 54,000 employees but it is not known how many are in the San Francisco Bay.
Microsoft has more than 80,000 employees across the country.
Facebook: They told employees in its San Francisco Bay offices to stay at home on Friday and cancel all business trips due to the virus.
Facebook already announced on Wednesday it has closed its Seattle office until at least March 9 after a contractor there was discovered to have contracted the virus.
The two offices have an estimated 17,000 employees.
Apple: Advised all 12,000 employees at its Cupertino headquarters to work from home
Amazon: Company gave its more than 50,000 employees in the Washington state region a green light to work remotely after one of its headquarter employees tested positive for coronavirus.
Google: The company is also encouraging workers in Washington state to stay away from offices and work from home.
This includes banning ads that sell medical face masks on the site that advertise a limited supply or claim to offer complete protection against the virus.
The social network is also providing the World Health Organisation (WHO) with ‘as many free ads as it needs’ for its coronavirus response and funding relief efforts.
In addition, users who search ‘coronavirus’ on Facebook will see a pop-up at the top of search results, directing them to the WHO or local health authority for the latest information.
‘This is now a global challenge and we’ve spent the past month working with health authorities to coordinate our response,’ CEO Mark Zuckerberg previously said.
‘We’re focused on making sure everyone can access credible and accurate information.
‘This is critical in any emergency, but it’s especially important when there are precautions you can take to reduce the risk of infection.’
Microsoft, meanwhile, has closed all its stores worldwide for the health and safety of its customers and employees, it said.
‘We know families, remote workers and businesses are under unique pressure at this time, and we are still here to serve you online at Microsoft.com,’ it said in a Twitter post.
Microsoft is also paying hourly workers even if they can’t come into work as part of a new policy outlined earlier this month.
‘We recognize the hardship that lost work can mean for hourly workers,’ Microsoft President Brad Smith said.
‘As a result, we’ve decided that Microsoft will continue to pay all our vendor hourly service providers their regular pay during this period of reduced service needs.
‘This is independent of whether their full services are needed.
‘We’re committed as a company to making public health our first priority and doing what we can to address the economic and societal impact of COVID-19.
‘We appreciate that what’s affordable for a large employer may not be affordable for a small business, but we believe that large employers who can afford to take this type of step should consider doing so.’
Google has added a reminder to users to ‘do the five’ by washing hands, keeping distance from others and staying at home if they feel sick, based on information from WHO
Google has also previously teamed up with the WHO to launch an SOS Alert dedicated to the coronavirus.
The search engine prioritises information on the virus from the WHO, including safety tips and WHO Twitter updates on the spread of the virus and how to stay safe.
It has also updated its homepage to urge users to ‘do the five’ to help stop the virus from spreading, based on information from WHO.
Google-owned YouTube is also directing users to videos from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other locally relevant public health agencies.
Google Search and Maps will also display if a place such as a school or local business is temporarily closed because of the outbreak, based on data from governments and other authorities.
‘We’re also removing COVID-19 misinformation on YouTube, Google Maps, our developer platforms like Play, and across ads,’ Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a blog post on Sunday.
‘On YouTube, we’ve taken down thousands of videos related to dangerous or misleading coronavirus information, and we continue to remove videos that promote medically unproven methods to prevent coronavirus in place of seeking medical treatment.’
Twitter has also enabled a search prompt that appears when users search ‘coronavirus’ or any common misspelling, directing them to an authoritative health website, such as the NHS.
Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, Microsoft and Amazon are among the big global employers to have asked their workers who can work from home during the crisis to do so.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THE CORONAVIRUS?
What is the coronavirus?
A coronavirus is a type of virus which can cause illness in animals and people. Viruses break into cells inside their host and use them to reproduce itself and disrupt the body’s normal functions. Coronaviruses are named after the Latin word ‘corona’, which means crown, because they are encased by a spiked shell which resembles a royal crown.
The coronavirus from Wuhan is one which has never been seen before this outbreak. It has been named SARS-CoV-2 by the International Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses. The name stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome coronavirus 2.
Experts say the bug, which has killed around one in 50 patients since the outbreak began in December, is a ‘sister’ of the SARS illness which hit China in 2002, so has been named after it.
The disease that the virus causes has been named COVID-19, which stands for coronavirus disease 2019.
Dr Helena Maier, from the Pirbright Institute, said: ‘Coronaviruses are a family of viruses that infect a wide range of different species including humans, cattle, pigs, chickens, dogs, cats and wild animals.
‘Until this new coronavirus was identified, there were only six different coronaviruses known to infect humans. Four of these cause a mild common cold-type illness, but since 2002 there has been the emergence of two new coronaviruses that can infect humans and result in more severe disease (Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) coronaviruses).
‘Coronaviruses are known to be able to occasionally jump from one species to another and that is what happened in the case of SARS, MERS and the new coronavirus. The animal origin of the new coronavirus is not yet known.’
The first human cases were publicly reported from the Chinese city of Wuhan, where approximately 11million people live, after medics first started publicly reporting infections on December 31.
By January 8, 59 suspected cases had been reported and seven people were in critical condition. Tests were developed for the new virus and recorded cases started to surge.
The first person died that week and, by January 16, two were dead and 41 cases were confirmed. The next day, scientists predicted that 1,700 people had become infected, possibly up to 7,000.
Where does the virus come from?
According to scientists, the virus almost certainly came from bats. Coronaviruses in general tend to originate in animals – the similar SARS and MERS viruses are believed to have originated in civet cats and camels, respectively.
The first cases of COVID-19 came from people visiting or working in a live animal market in Wuhan, which has since been closed down for investigation.
Although the market is officially a seafood market, other dead and living animals were being sold there, including wolf cubs, salamanders, snakes, peacocks, porcupines and camel meat.
A study by the Wuhan Institute of Virology, published in February 2020 in the scientific journal Nature, found that the genetic make-up virus samples found in patients in China is 96 per cent identical to a coronavirus they found in bats.
However, there were not many bats at the market so scientists say it was likely there was an animal which acted as a middle-man, contracting it from a bat before then transmitting it to a human. It has not yet been confirmed what type of animal this was.
Dr Michael Skinner, a virologist at Imperial College London, was not involved with the research but said: ‘The discovery definitely places the origin of nCoV in bats in China.
‘We still do not know whether another species served as an intermediate host to amplify the virus, and possibly even to bring it to the market, nor what species that host might have been.’
So far the fatalities are quite low. Why are health experts so worried about it?
Experts say the international community is concerned about the virus because so little is known about it and it appears to be spreading quickly.
It is similar to SARS, which infected 8,000 people and killed nearly 800 in an outbreak in Asia in 2003, in that it is a type of coronavirus which infects humans’ lungs. It is less deadly than SARS, however, which killed around one in 10 people, compared to approximately one in 50 for COVID-19.
Another reason for concern is that nobody has any immunity to the virus because they’ve never encountered it before. This means it may be able to cause more damage than viruses we come across often, like the flu or common cold.
Speaking at a briefing in January, Oxford University professor, Dr Peter Horby, said: ‘Novel viruses can spread much faster through the population than viruses which circulate all the time because we have no immunity to them.
‘Most seasonal flu viruses have a case fatality rate of less than one in 1,000 people. Here we’re talking about a virus where we don’t understand fully the severity spectrum but it’s possible the case fatality rate could be as high as two per cent.’
If the death rate is truly two per cent, that means two out of every 100 patients who get it will die.
‘My feeling is it’s lower,’ Dr Horby added. ‘We’re probably missing this iceberg of milder cases. But that’s the current circumstance we’re in.
‘Two per cent case fatality rate is comparable to the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1918 so it is a significant concern globally.’
How does the virus spread?
The illness can spread between people just through coughs and sneezes, making it an extremely contagious infection. And it may also spread even before someone has symptoms.
It is believed to travel in the saliva and even through water in the eyes, therefore close contact, kissing, and sharing cutlery or utensils are all risky. It can also live on surfaces, such as plastic and steel, for up to 72 hours, meaning people can catch it by touching contaminated surfaces.
Originally, people were thought to be catching it from a live animal market in Wuhan city. But cases soon began to emerge in people who had never been there, which forced medics to realise it was spreading from person to person.
What does the virus do to you? What are the symptoms?
Once someone has caught the COVID-19 virus it may take between two and 14 days, or even longer, for them to show any symptoms – but they may still be contagious during this time.
If and when they do become ill, typical signs include a runny nose, a cough, sore throat and a fever (high temperature). The vast majority of patients will recover from these without any issues, and many will need no medical help at all.
In a small group of patients, who seem mainly to be the elderly or those with long-term illnesses, it can lead to pneumonia. Pneumonia is an infection in which the insides of the lungs swell up and fill with fluid. It makes it increasingly difficult to breathe and, if left untreated, can be fatal and suffocate people.
Figures are showing that young children do not seem to be particularly badly affected by the virus, which they say is peculiar considering their susceptibility to flu, but it is not clear why.
What have genetic tests revealed about the virus?
Scientists in China have recorded the genetic sequences of around 19 strains of the virus and released them to experts working around the world.
This allows others to study them, develop tests and potentially look into treating the illness they cause.
Examinations have revealed the coronavirus did not change much – changing is known as mutating – much during the early stages of its spread.
However, the director-general of China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, said the virus was mutating and adapting as it spread through people.
This means efforts to study the virus and to potentially control it may be made extra difficult because the virus might look different every time scientists analyse it.
More study may be able to reveal whether the virus first infected a small number of people then change and spread from them, or whether there were various versions of the virus coming from animals which have developed separately.
How dangerous is the virus?
The virus has a death rate of around two per cent. This is a similar death rate to the Spanish Flu outbreak which, in 1918, went on to kill around 50million people.
Experts have been conflicted since the beginning of the outbreak about whether the true number of people who are infected is significantly higher than the official numbers of recorded cases. Some people are expected to have such mild symptoms that they never even realise they are ill unless they’re tested, so only the more serious cases get discovered, making the death toll seem higher than it really is.
However, an investigation into government surveillance in China said it had found no reason to believe this was true.
Dr Bruce Aylward, a World Health Organization official who went on a mission to China, said there was no evidence that figures were only showing the tip of the iceberg, and said recording appeared to be accurate, Stat News reported.
Can the virus be cured?
The COVID-19 virus cannot be cured and it is proving difficult to contain.
Antibiotics do not work against viruses, so they are out of the question. Antiviral drugs can work, but the process of understanding a virus then developing and producing drugs to treat it would take years and huge amounts of money.
No vaccine exists for the coronavirus yet and it’s not likely one will be developed in time to be of any use in this outbreak, for similar reasons to the above.
The National Institutes of Health in the US, and Baylor University in Waco, Texas, say they are working on a vaccine based on what they know about coronaviruses in general, using information from the SARS outbreak. But this may take a year or more to develop, according to Pharmaceutical Technology.
Currently, governments and health authorities are working to contain the virus and to care for patients who are sick and stop them infecting other people.
People who catch the illness are being quarantined in hospitals, where their symptoms can be treated and they will be away from the uninfected public.
And airports around the world are putting in place screening measures such as having doctors on-site, taking people’s temperatures to check for fevers and using thermal screening to spot those who might be ill (infection causes a raised temperature).
However, it can take weeks for symptoms to appear, so there is only a small likelihood that patients will be spotted up in an airport.
Is this outbreak an epidemic or a pandemic?
The outbreak was declared a pandemic on March 11. A pandemic is defined by the World Health Organization as the ‘worldwide spread of a new disease’.
Previously, the UN agency said most cases outside of Hubei had been ‘spillover’ from the epicentre, so the disease wasn’t actually spreading actively around the world.