One of the internet's oldest fact-checking organizations is overwhelmed by coronavirus misinformation - and it could have deadly consequences
Snopes; Paige Leskin/Business Insider
- Misinformation regarding the coronavirus has proliferated online amid the outbreak, to the extent the World Health Organization has declared a news "infodemic."
- One of the internet's oldest fact-checking organizations, Snopes, has seen a 50% uptick in traffic in the last 30 days as people rush to find the truth behind coronavirus-related information flooding the web.
- Vinny Green, Snopes' chief operating officer, told Business Insider that we're nearing "the deadliest information crisis we might ever possibly have."
- Snopes is fighting to balance time constraints and the onslaught of interest, forcing the site to pick and choose the most important claims to debunk amid a life-or-death pandemic that's claimed nearly 40,000 lives.
Snopes, one of the internet's oldest fact-checking organizations has been fighting the spread of misinformation for more than 25 years, but the exponential spread of COVID-19, the coronavirus disease, has made fact-checking a matter of life or death. That's a responsibility the industry is "grossly unprepared" for, Snopes' Chief Operating Officer Vinny Green told Business Insider.
Since its founding in 1994 as an online database to debunk internet urban legends, Snopes has grown to be a reliable site to fact-check stories that - often with little evidence of legitimate sourcing - quickly gain traction on social media.
Now, amid what the World Health Organization has dubbed a fake news "infodemic," Snopes is tasked with answering the questions tens of millions of internet users may have about the truth of conspiracies, scams, and hoaxes proliferating online.
"These are rumors and grifts and scams that are causing real catastrophic consequences for people at risk," Green said. "It's the deadliest information crisis we might ever possibly have."
Since the coronavirus outbreak began in China in late 2019, more than 800,000 cases and nearly 40,000 deaths have been recorded worldwide. The virus's catastrophic and rapidly expanding impact has left no industry or person untouched, leading people to turn to the internet in search of preventive measures, self-diagnoses, and predictions for the future.
The desperation and high demand for answers about the coronavirus has created an atmosphere rife with misinformation. Snopes has seen around 36 million unique users visit its site in the last 30 days, a 50% increase in traffic compared with the previous 30-day period.
The website has positioned itself at the forefront of separating the truth from fiction: Its team has posted hundreds of articles since the outbreak started, debunking stories about vodka acting as a homemade replacement for hand sanitizer, stores issuing recalls for their toilet paper, and a cattle vaccine being effective in treating coronavirus patients, to name a few.
Yet Snopes is merely 10 employees, and is currently looking to fill an additional five positions. The small team is struggling to keep up with the onslaught of demand while maintaining its established vetting process, Green told Business Insider.
In an open letter Snopes recently published on its website, the team told its readers it wouldn't be able to ramp up productivity to respond to a growing demand for information and allow its employees' lives "spin out into more disorientating and distressing states." The team has reduced its 6-times-a-week newsletter to just twice each week, and has concentrated its resources to focus on the most important coronavirus-related fact-checks while "a never-ending mound of misinformation" circles the internet.
"People are taking medication they think are cures and getting sick. People are recommending participating in everyday activities when they could be killing vulnerable people," Green said. "We are so grossly unprepared, and have no way to increase our production capacity."
With people increasingly ordered to work from home and stay inside, they're turning to social media to glean and share coronavirus-related information. And even as Snopes works to tear down potentially life-threatening claims one by one, social platforms are nevertheless flooded with conspiracy theories, viral stories and reports, and unverified claims from government officials.
Misinformation is spreading faster than tech companies are able to take it down. The failure to prevent this spread during the coronavirus outbreak highlights the breakdown of the fact-checking industry as a whole, Green told Business Insider. Facebook, Twitter, and Google have made policy changes in an attempt to stymie the flow of inaccurate information. Some companies have been forced to leave content moderation in the hands of artificial intelligence-powered algorithms while their human moderators are forced to do their jobs remotely.
And some platforms are trying to build on already established fact-checking missions. Facebook and Google have dedicated fact-checking efforts to tackle misinformation and fake news on their platforms that launched in 2016 and 2018, respectively.
Yet today, Snopes' established team of fact-checkers and misinformation moderators is going unused by Facebook and Google. Snopes ended its partnership with Facebook in February 2019, citing the platform's refusal to compensate participating organizations for their work. Green said these platforms expect this work to be done for "nominal sums" of money.
"There's so much misinformation flowing through the pipes, but there's no payment structure scaling with that demand," Green said. "We tried to get Facebook to change, but it became too long to wait."
Since the coronavirus outbreak has become more critical, Facebook and WhatsApp have donated $2 million to Poynter's International Fact-Checking Network to help fact-checkers covering coronavirus produce multimedia content, work with health experts, and to increase their audience development. Facebook's $1 million, which will go into $50,000 flash grants, is only available to the fact-checking organizations who are part of Poynter's #CoronaVirusFacts Alliance. PolitiFact, the Agence France-Presse, and other mostly international organizations comprise the Network. Snopes is not a member.
"A hundred million dollars is a nominal sum of money to Facebook and to our industry," Green told Business Insider. The fact-checking industry, he said, "cannot exist hoping for the generosity of Facebook, at a time when [social media's] misinformation problem is costing people's lives. Our industry is dying and we can't keep hoping for handouts and being thankful for whatever trickles down."
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