Broken Incentives for Platforms Open for Weaponized Virus Disinformation

As we struggle to make something useful of our time spent in virus lockdown, the internet’s role in our lives becomes ever more apparent.

We depend on it to work from home, at least if we’re in office jobs. It is how we stay updated with information on the virus spread and instructions on which precautions we should take. If we need healthcare, we contact the system via apps, webpages or at least telephone. We use social media to keep in touch with our friends and relatives and to volunteer to shop groceries for the risk groups. Not least, how would we make time pass without music services, streaming movies and video games? Online media is a savior. The virus outbreak shows the internet’s best sides.

Sadly, the virus outbreak also shows the worst sides of online. Rather than spreading correct information, self-proclaimed experts take to social media to criticize the authorities’ recommendations and decisions, looking for a hidden agenda when there is none. As the EEAS (EU cyber watchdog) showed in a report yesterday, there are number of trending stories.


1. The coronavirus is a biological weapon deployed alternatively by China, the US, the UK or even Russia (with the aim of destroying the EU and NATO)

2. The EU is not ready to provide urgent support to its Member States – instead, they have to rely on external support (e.g., Italy), with China mentioned most often as the source of such assistance.

3. The coronavirus is a hoax, it does not exist

Cures: claims that natural remedies exist to cure the virus, which are often combined with anti-vaccination narratives.

Once celebrated as a bringer of freedom of speech and democracy (remember the Arab Spring anyone?)

Some of these are actively promoted and weaponised for geopolitical purposes by Russia or China, but also non-State actors such as Daesh/ISIS take the opportunity to spread disinformation.

It is a sad situation that social media propagates this disinformation. Once celebrated as a bringer of freedom of speech and democracy (remember the Arab Spring anyone?), social media is becoming a real threat to precisely democracy and freedom of speech. Yes, the platforms have taken some steps, but they are far from enough.


/…/evidence indicates that platforms are continuing to host false and harmful ads that for example propagate “numerical codes” as a cure for COVID-19 or misrepresent quarantine as the first step in imposing NATO rule over Europe. This suggests that platforms have difficulties adhering to their own published standards and public commitments on preventing the proliferation of dangerous coronavirus-related disinformation, despite allocating significant resources to this task. As a result, this raises concerns that the problem is not merely the prevalence of harmful speech online but rather a system of broken incentives which prevents internet platforms from adequately protecting the public interest. Moreover, the scope, impact, and success of the actions that platforms are taking is hard to assess independently, especially considering the restrictions on privacy-compliant access to public interest data for researchers.

There it is. Don’t take it from Netopia (though we’ve been saying this for ten years now), take it from the EU’s cyber watchdog. Can we have more of the good and less of the bad? Platforms hold the keys, but their track record is not impressive.