The Technology 202: Posts promoting unproven drugs highlight limits of social networks’ coronavirus fight

The Technology 202: Posts promoting unproven drugs highlight limits of social networks' coronavirus fight

with Tonya Riley

Posts selling unproven drug therapies to treat the novel coronavirus continued to surface on social networks over the last week, despite the companies’ promises to promote public health and crack down on misleading information.

On Facebook, one account peddled hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malarial drug President Trump aggressively promoted to treat covid-19. The page, which has since been removed, pushed people to text a WhatsApp number to place an order. It was still live days after a study found the anti-malarial had no benefit and was linked to higher rates of death for Veterans Affairs patients hospitalized with the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile on YouTube, a video promoted the sale of raw materials to make the drug. And another promoted sales in the United States of Avigan, a flu treatment being tested against covid-19. 

And on Instagram, there were at least half a dozen posts selling isopropyl alcohol a common disinfectant that is the main ingredient in many hand sanitizer recipes. The alcohol has received more attention in recent days as medical professionals warn people not to ingest it or bleach after Trump asked in a press briefing if disinfectants could be injected in the body to treat coronavirus. The president later said his comments were “sarcastic.”

Facebook is allowing many of the alcohol posts to remain on its site, despite the company’s policy against exploitative sales of other disinfectants like hand sanitizer and wipes. 

The posts highlight the cracks in the tech companies’ enforcement of their pandemic content policies. 

Tech companies have adopted new guidelines to block content promoting untested coronavirus cures or price gouging for highly coveted items such as masks. But at the same time, they’ve had to significantly cut back on human moderation of their content as they put content moderators on paid leave because of the pandemic. 

Researchers fear they’re starting to see the effects of the companies’ staffing limitations. 

Eric Feinberg, vice president of the Coalition for a Safer Web, revealed these videos, posts and pages promoting the coronavirus treatments by using technology he developed that scans the social networks for common keywords or hashtags. He tried to report many of the posts and pages he found to Instagram and Facebook, but when he did the services warned him their teams were not able to review every reported post because of recent staffing changes. 

“Eric, we can’t prioritize all reports right now,” a Facebook notification said when he tried to report the page selling hydroxychloroquine, according to a screeenshot shared with The Technology 202. “We have fewer people available to review reports because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak. We’re trying hard to prioritize content with the most potential for harm.”

The page selling hydroxychloroquine remained online for several days after Feinberg’s report. Facebook removed it Sunday evening, after The Washington Post reached out for comment.

Feinberg says the companies have a responsibility to ensure they have enough people policing this content even with the constraints presented by the pandemic. 

“Facebook reduced staff during this time; it’s a dereliction of duty,” he said. 

Facebook has explained the decision to send content moderators home was a difficult trade-off. As my colleagues previously reported, chief executive Mark Zuckerberg warned that because moderators were placed on paid leave that more mistakes would be made by software looking for content violating the company’s policies. Facebook has been training more of its full-time employees to pay “extra attention” to harmful content on the service such as terrorism and child exploitation. 

“While we’ve removed millions of ads and commerce listings for violating our policies related to COVID-19, we’re always working to improve our enforcement systems to prevent harmful misinformation related to this emergency from spreading on our services,” Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement. 

YouTube also removed two videos promoting the drugs days after Feinberg’s report when The Technology 202 requested comment. 

“We’re committed to providing timely and helpful information at this critical time, including by raising authoritative content, reducing the spread of harmful misinformation and showing information panels using data from global and local health organizations,” YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi said.

The posts also underscore the limitations of the coronavirus-related bans the companies have rushed to adopt. 

Facebook adopted a specific policy against exploitative tactics related to the pandemic, banning all sales of medical face masks, hand sanitizer, surface disinfecting wipes and covid-19 testing kits. The temporary policy allows the company to prevent price gouging, as well as sales of fake or counterfeit medical supplies and cleaning supplies. 

But isopropyl alcohol is also so high in demand that the price has been pushed to record highs in the United States and Europe, as the Wall Street Journal reported. Manufacturers have had to turn to alternative ingredients like ethanol as they seek to increase production of hand sanitizer and other medical disinfectants. 

But Facebook only removed posts that The Washington Post asked about that promoted other products specifically listed in its policies, such as masks. Many posts selling only the alcohol remain online. 

The company’s decision to continue to allow the sale of the rubbing alcohol could present a loophole in the rules for bad actors seeking to profit from the pandemic, Feinberg said. He also said there’s no way to know if the substances are actually rubbing alcohol and effective disinfectants. 

“Who knows what the ingredients are?” he said. 

Our top tabs

Suppliers feel forced to stock Amazon over competing retailers during the pandemic.

Amazon’s algorithms can penalize companies that run out of stock, making them appear lower in certain categories or searches. That leaves suppliers with limited inventory to decide between favoring Amazon over other retailers or seeing their sales from the e-commerce giant dramatically dip, Renee Dudley at ProPublica reports.

The increased demand created by the coronavirus has further accelerated the issue. In one instance, energy bar company Rise saw its sales plummet by 25 percent and its ranking drop from 2,000 to 8,000 in a bestseller category after it went out of stock. The owner then decided to sell most of its stock to Amazon.

“The consequences of going out of stock on Amazon are often greater than the consequences of going out of stock elsewhere,”  said Fahim Naim, a former Amazon category manager who now runs a consulting firm for sellers. “Amazon is so powerful right now, and there are so many customers on it.”

An Amazon representative said its algorithm is designed “to feature items we believe customers will want to purchase, and that includes items that are in stock.”  

But the advantage Amazon is building now could outlast the pandemic and give investigators concerned about Amazon’s potentially noncompetitive behavior more evidence. The Washington Post is owned by Amazon head Jeff Bezos.

“That everybody does just what you want and puts you first out of fear that if they fall out of favor with you, they’re in real trouble — that could be taken as proof of your market power,” said William Kovacic, director of the Competition Law Center at George Washington University Law School and a former chairman of the Federal Trade Commission.

The pandemic has forced retailers to change their advertising strategy to embrace stay-at-home lifestyles.

Social media ads now urge people to buy clothing that makes them look “Zoom ready” or to “save a trip to the grocery store” with food delivery, Heather Kelly reports. Others are looking to profit off coronavirus fears, pivoting to masks and hawking immunity-boosting supplements.

“[With] all this chaos, the news and how scary this world feels right now, one of the things you can do is treat yourself to feeling as comfortable as possible with what’s on your body,”  Kayti O’Connell Carr, founder and director of clothing label Mate the Label, told Heather.

Other companies are pivoting production toward quarantine-friendly items, further clogging social media feeds, peddling new accessories such as a keychain touch tool to press buttons and open doors without hands.

Users are noticing the shift, Heather reports, but it’s hard to tell how much the ads are built off social users’ prior behavior. Instagram couldn’t provide any information about ad sales during the pandemic, spokeswoman Stephanie Chan told Heather. But she confirmed that a user’s ad experience could be informed by their browsing history.

Hill happenings

Democrats want the Internal Revenue Service to protect taxpayers from covid-19 scams.

The IRS should further develop fraud prevention strategies for the online tools that Americans use to receive their stimulus payments, including the recently created websites for nonfilers, Sens. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), Tom Carper (D-Del.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote in a letter to IRS Commissioner Charles Rettig.

The IRS issued a warning earlier this month about an uptick in scams targeting stimulus recipients. The senators say the agency needs to do more, including fully implementing 2018 Government Accountability Office recommendations to improve taxpayer authentication procedures and reduce identity theft.

The senators also encouraged the agency to partner with the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission, which have also been cracking down on fraudsters.

Inside the industry

Facebook announced a new product to compete with Zoom and other videoconferencing software.

Messenger Rooms will allow up to 50 people to conference at a time, Rachel Lerman reports. The service will be free and won’t have a time limit.  Facebook-owned WhatsApp will also double the number of individuals allowed in a call from four to eight.  

“Video presence isn’t just about calling someone,” chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said Friday. “It is starting to be a fundamental building block of a private social platform with lots of new use cases.”

Tech giants including Facebook have scrambled to compete with Zoom’s rapid ascent during the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook’s long history of privacy scandals could deter some users, however. Facebook said it will not view or listen to calls.

Rant and rave

Rooms got a mixed reaction on Twitter. The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern took the announcement as more evidence that Facebook is the pandemic platform we need:

BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz:

Consumer Reports’s Justin Brookman raised security concerns about Rooms:

And we can’t forget about Google in all of this. Democratic strategist Jesse Lehrich:

More from the industry:

Workforce report

Online education company Coursera is partnering with states and governments in other countries to make 3,800 of its online courses available to citizens unemployed due to the coronavirus free through the end of the year.

Initial partners in the United States include Illinois, Arizona and Oklahoma.  The initiative includes professional certificates in fields including IT support. Coursera has partnered with companies such as Google to help place certificate recipients into jobs.

In addition to its workforce program, Coursera is working on expanding its partnerships with colleges and universities as many institutions weigh how to proceed with the next academic year. Since March, the company has worked with more than 6,000 academic institutions around the world to offer them online classes.

“There’s a new future for learning that’s going to be different from the past and I don’t think it’s ever going to go back to the way it was,” chief executive Jeff Maggioncalda said in an interview.

Amazon is extending hourly pay increases for warehouse workers during the coronavirus pandemic through May 16. 

The company did not say it would extend a policy it adopted in March that allows warehouse workers to take unlimited unpaid time off during the pandemic, Annie Palmer at CNBC reports. Rather, Amazon will extend unpaid leaves of absence to “high-risk individuals” or workers impacted by school closures,  Amazon spokeswoman Rachael Lighty told Annie.

But that could leave some workers choosing between risking infection or going without pay.

“The last thing I want to do is leave my job because I genuinely love working for Amazon, but I have a toddler and a very ill father that I have to look out for,” an Amazon worker in Massachusetts who wished to remain anonymous told Annie. “I wouldn’t want to risk exposure of this virus to them. ”

More from the workforce:

Agency scanner

An FCC commenting system is still vulnerable to hacking – nearly three years after a high-profile crash.

The Federal Communications Commission has fully implemented only about two-thirds of the recommended fixes to prevent a repeat of the 2017 disaster when its commenting system crashed during the net neutrality debate, a Government Accountability Office report found. But it’s not planning to make all the fixes until at least April 2021, the report, which was released publicly on Friday, said.

The comment system, which the agency uses to inform policymaking, came under scrutiny when the system was overwhelmed with millions of fake comments during debate over the Obama-era rules that the FCC struck down.

Until FCC fully implements these recommendations and resolves the associated deficiencies, its information systems and information will remain at increased risk, the report notes.

The FCC claimed the 2017 crash resulted from a malicious effort to overwhelm its servers with traffic. But critics said it was due to a legitimate surge in public interest in proposals to change how Internet service providers treat different web traffic after a bit by comedian John Oliver which was later backed up by FCC’s own inspector general. 

The FCC says it’s on track to resolve the remaining vulnerability by 2021, but some lawmakers say that isn’t fast enough.

Chairman Pai must act swiftly to fix these vulnerabilities and restore trust back into the [electronic comment filing system] and the FCC’s cybersecurity practices overall, said Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who requested the GAO report.


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