The Technology 202: Democratic senators blast WhatsApp’s handling of coronavirus falsehoods

The Technology 202: Democratic senators blast WhatsApp's handling of coronavirus falsehoods

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A group of Democratic senators say Facebook hasn’t done enough to stop coronavirus misinformation on its messaging service WhatsApp. Now they’re calling on chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to take more drastic steps. 

Sens. Mazie Hirono (Hawaii), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Richard J. Durbin (Illinois) and Robert Menendez (N.J.) sent a letter yesterday to Zuckerberg raising concerns that the service has devolved into a “petri dish of coronavirus misinformation. 

Falsehoods circulating on the platform, according to the senators, include a claim that a regional government in India has identified gourd juice that can cure the coronavirus, and a supposed United Nation’s Children’s Fund advisory instructing people to avoid ice cream or other cold food to prevent contracting the virus. One of Facebook’s partners, the fact-checking arm of Agence France-Presse, has already debunked more than 140 covid-19 myths on the messaging service, the senators write. 

“There’s a lot of misinformation being spread about coronavirus, and there’s a concern that people have that WhatsApp is a platform that allows misinformation to spread like a virus,” Hirono said in an interview. 

WhatsApp announced this morning it would introduce new limitations on messages that have been forwarded many times. Once a message has been previously forwarded five times, the new restriction will only allow it to be forwarded to one chat at a time. Since last year, the company has been marking such messages with a double arrow. 

“We believe it’s important to slow the spread of these messages down to keep WhatsApp a place for personal conversation,” a company blog post said this morning. 

Facebook has embraced aggressive policies to stamp out coronavirus misinformation across its services but it’s particularly challenging for the giant social media platform to crack down on hoaxes and rumors on WhatsApp because of its lack of transparency.

The company can’t see the contents of messages that individuals share with each other, even in the midst of a deadly pandemic, because they’re strongly encrypted. Many of the tactics the company uses to slow the spread of misinformation in public posts on Facebook and Instagram don’t work in one-to-one messaging on WhatsApp.

“I know that there’s a lot of harmful misinformation that’s getting out through WhatsAppp, and since Zuckerberg has taken steps to protect Facebook, why can’t he do that with regard to WhatsApp?” Hirono said. 

Hirono acknowledges the platform is encrypted, but she says she wants to hear from Zuckerberg directly about his plans to address the problems. 

The senators want Facebook to consider changes to WhatsApp including a prompt asking a user whether they have verified a message is accurate before they forward it to another contact, according to a copy of their letter shared with The Technology 202. Hirono suggested the company could track a possible bad actor by identifying entities forwarding an unusual amount of messages.

WhatsApp spokesman Carl Woog says the company plans to respond to the senators. WhatsApp is doing more to ensure that misinformation doesn’t spread as quickly on the messaging service especially as the public health emergency raises the stakes, he said.

WhatsApp is not planning to adopt such a prompt, Woog told me. He questioned whether people would pay attention to the prompt if they received it every time that they tried to forward a message. He also said people should be able to choose what they send on the WhatsApp service, much like emails or SMS text messages. 

Misinformation isn’t new to the fast-growing service particularly popular in countries with more limited Internet connectivity – and it’s had dire consequences in the past. In the first half of 2018, more than two dozen people died in India in incidents connected to WhatsApp rumors, my colleague Elyse Samuels has reported. And a wave of disinformation spread to voters on the service ahead of the Brazilian elections. 

WhatsApp also bans 2 million accounts per month for attempting to send bulk or automated messages, and it’s working directly with public health officials to connect people with accurate coronavirus information. The senators acknowledged the service’s partnership with the World Health Organization, but they say it doesn’t go far enough to address the proliferation of falsehoods. 


BITS: Amazon will begin to discipline workers who don’t follow social distancing rules requiring them to stay six feet apart, Annie Palmer at CNBC reports. The retail giant introduced the measures amid growing scrutiny of how it’s handling worker safety during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Workers first receive a written warning and are terminated if caught a second time, according to a document obtained by CNBC. Amazon confirmed to CNBC that it had introduced the policy. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post).

But it’s unclear how the company will enforce the measure uniformly. Last week retail head Dave Clark said the company would use machine learning and internal cameras to improve social distancing. Three warehouse employees told Annie that leadership would review camera footage of the warehouse floors.

Some workers told Annie they appreciated the new measures, but others expressed concerns that uneven enforcement would punish floor workers who are often working in close conditions alongside hundreds of other employees.

“We do not feel safe in our building anymore. I’m frustrated with it,” one worker in Indiana told Annie. The worker said it was unfair to punish employees over social distancing without offering coronavirus testing. Amazon takes employees’ temperatures. 

“If they’re having to go to all these great lengths to keep us safe, I feel like they need to shut down the building for two weeks so they can actually get cleaned,” the worker said.

NIBBLES: Teachers across the country report that less than half of their students are attending virtual lessons, Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones at the New York Times report. The low attendance, sparked at least in part by a lack of Internet and computer access, could worsen the educational divide between high and low-income students.

The Cleveland Metropolitan School District has adapted to the divide by distributing printed work packets to students, at least 30 to 40 percent of whom don’t have Internet access. Other school districts, including Los Angeles and Miami-Dade County public schools, have distributed tens of thousands of mobile devices and hotspots to students directly.

But without the direct support of educators, students who don’t have parents to instruct them may still be at a disadvantage.

“I actually need my teachers, who know me and understand me, to help me, and I don’t have that,” said Titilayo Aluko, a junior at Landmark High School in Manhattan. Aluko has a school-issued laptop but no home WiFi. “I just keep thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I might not pass.’ I’m just really scared for the future.”

The gap is “a serious issue that could have implications for years,” Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, a network of urban education systems, told the Times.

“Many skills build on one another,” Casserly said. “If a child misses out on some key idea, then all of a sudden, additional ideas as they’re introduced just become Greek

BYTES: Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) criticized Zoom’s privacy practices in a letter yesterday after videos of thousands of private Zoom meetings surfaced online on public sites like YouTube. The Colorado Democrat joins a growing list of Democrats that have criticized the video conferencing company for putting users’ privacy and security at risk

“Many of these videos include intimate details of private businesses and personal relationships, potentially exposing users to significant financial, personal, and psychological harm,” Bennet wrote in a letter to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan. “In case after case, these issues consistently stem from Zoom’s deliberate decision to emphasize ease of use over user privacy and safety.”

Bennet wants to know all the data Zoom collects on users, how long it stores that data, and which third parties can access the data. He also wants to know what steps the company has taken to notify victims of the breach, which was first reported by my colleague Drew Harwell last week.

Zoom has taken a number of steps to address mounting security concerns with its platform and plans to make more privacy and security features available to users by default, Yuan told The Technology 202 last week.


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– Gig workers for Target’s delivery service Shipt will walk out today to demand better working conditions during the coronavirus pandemic, Lauren Kaori Gurley at Vice reports Organizers, who are asking customers to boycott the app on Friday, want $5 of hazard pay per order, 14 days of paid sick leave and personal protective gear, she writes.

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Marble racing has taken over online sports during the coronavirus pandemic, my colleague Travis M. Andrews reports.

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