🔒 A surge of skelms and fake news spreaders during Covid-19 pandemic – The Wall Street Journal

The current pandemic offers so many stories of people who go out of their way to help others and it does make many of us feel that we are part of humanity and are all in this together. But it has also brought out the worst in some people as they hoard a king’s ransom of toilet paper and there are scammers and fraudsters who are circling and are trying to capitalise on the pandemic. In the United Kingdom, hackers broke into computers at Hammersmith Medicines Research, a London-based company that carries out clinical trials for new medicines. They used encryption to lock down thousands of the company’s patient records and threatened to publish them online if a ransom wasn’t paid. Also in the UK, doctors and nurses in some areas have been instructed not wear their uniforms away from hospitals as there have been attacks on staff of the National Health Service for their badges as it enables them to get easier access to food and shopping, and many places offer them free and discounted food. In South Africa, the Institute of Auctioneers (SAIA) has warned members that there are online fraud scams as shoppers have taken to online-shopping during the lockdown with criminals creating fake Facebook pages using the name of established companies. The latest includes Claremart Auctioneers, Park Village and Rose-Innes Auctions. Buyers are given the option to reserve a vehicle with a deposit in a bogus online auction. Social media companies, who were up to now engaged in trying to stem the flow of fake news on a variety of subjects, have all turned their attention to stop fake news on the coronavirus. As many people now feel particularly vulnerable, they have become more willing to believe fake news and the fake news brigade and scammers are cranking up their operations to pounce on this. The Wall Street Journal reports that the companies supporting Facebook to spot fake news are “maxxed out”– Linda van Tilburg

Facebook’s fact checkers fight surge in fake coronavirus claims

By Jeff Horwitz

(The Wall Street Journal) – There is no coronavirus vaccine available for dogs being withheld from humans.

It isn’t necessary to close your windows because military helicopters will start spraying disinfectant.

And baby-formula manufacturers aren’t sending freebies to people who call their customer hotlines.

These are among the viral social-media memes debunked by Lead Stories, a fact-checking site co-founded by Los Angeles entrepreneur Alan Duke.

At a moment when there are global scarcities for items as diverse as toilet paper and ventilators, Mr. Duke offers something else in short supply: fact checking.

The former CNN producer’s company, Lead Stories, helps Facebook Inc. and other social-media platforms limit the spread of virus-related misinformation by flagging it as false. Business is booming, thanks to a surge of posts that are both dangerous and harder to track than many other forms of what is known as fake news.

The claims that Lead Stories debunks are then labeled as false on Facebook, which limits their spread and links to Lead Stories’ reviews. A staffer combs the platform looking to identify and label duplicates that spring up.

Already ramping up with funding from Facebook to combat misinformation in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, Mr. Duke and others in the industry have pivoted to coronavirus almost full-time.

“We’ve maxxed out all our goals for the month,” he said halfway through March, referring to the company’s contractual targets for Facebook fact-check volumes. Lead Stories continues to review Facebook and Instagram content, and review material from Twitter, YouTube and other platforms that don’t pay it, posting fact checks to its own site. Since its first coronavirus fact check in mid-January, Lead Stories has fact checked more than 200 viral coronavirus claims.

Other fact checkers have become similarly focused, organizing an ad-hoc international task force to identify misinformation that has hopped national borders and languages as quickly as the virus itself.

Lead Stories has traditionally battled political publishers and for-profit hoaxers in places ranging from the U.S. to Macedonia and Pakistan. While many coronavirus posts carry international content—the meme warning of military disinfectant drops appeared in Europe and elsewhere—they generally appear to be noncommercial, produced by pranksters or people promoting misguided home remedies, Mr. Duke said.

Such apparently organic content also coexists with ideologically driven falsehoods, such as the claim that “60 Democrats” in the U.S. Senate blocked coronavirus relief payments to Americans.

The content is often memes and images rather than purported news stories. And where Lead Stories has become used to complaints from the publishers of stories it rated as false, it now hears from regular users upset that it has debunked a meme they shared. “Sharing this stuff is how people connect to their friends and co-workers,” Mr. Duke said. “It’s embarrassing when it shows up in their timeline that they shared something that’s wrong. That’s not something we’ve been through before with fact checking—this is much more personal.”

As is common with Facebook’s more than 60 global fact-checking partners, Lead Stories was launched with independent funding but has sustained itself in part with Facebook money. The tech giant started the fact-checking program in late 2016 after criticism of how it handled misinformation during the 2016 presidential race. But human fact checkers remain central to Facebook’s defenses, and even before the coronavirus pandemic the company was ramping up its investments.

Mr. Duke declined to say by how much money Facebook is paying Lead Stories, but said it was a multiple of the $359,000 it earned under its 2019 contract.

Mr. Duke and his co-founder Maarten Schenk, who works from his home in Belgium, were the company’s sole full-time employees until last November, when Facebook told U.S.-based fact-checking partners that it would bankroll a sharp expansion of their work ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

“Fighting misinformation isn’t something one company can do alone,” said Campbell Brown, head of news partnerships at Facebook. “The more the industry is sharing best practices and companies are learning from each other, the better the outcomes will be for people.”

The funding let Lead Stories increase hiring. It now has 10 full-time employees and six part-time fact checkers, mostly former CNN employees. Mr. Duke said it pays “on par” with the network’s six-figure salaries in some instances.