Covid-19: fake news prompts an unlikely alliance of big tech titans


By Grace Duncan, Senior Account Executive

Some of the major tech players, previously seen as having played a part in creating fake news, are currently taking unprecedented action to take on the spread of misinformation. Leading global technology businesses recently published an open letter announcing they were working together to combat the spread of fake news, going further and faster than ever before to exert editorial control on their platforms. This is already dramatically changing the public perceptions of an often-maligned industry, and will have a big impact on our jobs as communicators in the years to come.

Fake news is not new, and over the last five years it has become a central issue in our media. Big tech has previously put measures in place to confront the issue: for example, after the 2016 US election social media companies increased the number of human content moderators on their platforms.  However, the solutions that they put in place are not seen as scalable, relying on human moderators to police unimaginable amounts of content produced daily around the world. It can often seem like no matter what they do, big tech companies constantly face criticism for not doing enough.

In the current Covid-19 environment, fake news has the potential to be more dangerous than normal. In the UK, rumours swirled on social media, with many users sharing – at the time inaccurate – reports that the army had been deployed in London, no doubt leading to increased panic-buying of essential produce. With many countries around the world undergoing similar draconian measures, it is harder than ever for the public to separate fact from fiction.

In recent years, social networks’ attempts to police content on their platforms have come under intense scrutiny. Human moderators are not scalable long-term, so many are looking to AI to fill the gaps, with all the issues of unconscious bias that brings. The Covid-19 crisis has flipped this script on its head, with technology companies drawing praise in the media for their swift and coordinated response to the issue of fake news on their platforms.


Even more interestingly, many social media companies are slowly becoming editorial destinations in themselves. Most seek to portray themselves as neutral, but they are increasingly ending up more as public utilities, displaying information from the government alongside user-generated content. For example, some have been publishing government advice at the top of people’s feeds or taking people directly to the NHS website when they have a question on the virus.


Continuing down this road means tech companies accepting increasing levels of editorial responsibility for the content on their platforms, which will change how consumers use them and how they are treated by regulators. It remains to be seen if these measures will be rolled back as soon as possible or if these changes are here to stay. One thing’s for certain, big tech is shaping the media landscape in new and unprecedented ways, which we will have to adapt to.

There is much we can learn from this story of reputational ‘rags to riches’. In a time of crisis, bold, authentic, communication is key, aimed at directly addressing a problem rather than promoting products or services. No one wants to be seen as an ambulance chaser.

It’s worth remembering that these businesses are fiercely competitive with each other in normal times. Putting this crisis above those concerns sends a powerful message that will be understood across a broad range of audiences. These are principles that can work for any business looking to communicate in a time of crisis: find your own business’ relevance to the problem at hand, speak about what you’re doing with authenticity and avoiding self-promotional language. As the media is showing us now, if you can do that, you will be recognised accordingly.