Sarah T. Roberts: Social Media’s Moral and Ethical Obligations in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Scholar of content moderation criticizes Facebook for lax standards that almost allowed life-threatening misinformation online.

According to a recent online article in Consumer Reports, more than half of American adults turn to Facebook as a source of news. Sarah T. Roberts, assistant professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies, is quoted in the article in regard to the social media company’s approval of fake ads that made it to Facebook’s queue, but were never posted online. 

The paid ads – which were invented by a Consumer Reports reporter and remained scheduled for publication for a whole week by Facebook – made outrageous claims that COVID-19 was a hoax, advocated drinking small doses of bleach, and stated that social distancing made no difference in preventing the spread of the virus. 

“If your system is so porous and under-resourced that it lets something like these ads through, you’ve got a problem,” said Professor Roberts, who co-directs the UCLA Center for Critical Internet Inquiry.

In the wake of Facebook’s downsizing last month, which left only a few thousand employees to deal with the worldwide onslaught of questionable material from users, the company is understaffed to apply careful human scrutiny to submissions like the bogus ads created by the Consumer Reports writer. Roberts noted that every coronavirus-related material should be seen by a human before it gains approval and is posted by Facebook.

“There’s already a responsibility to the public around organic content,” Roberts said in the article. “But when it comes to lucrative monetized material that would not exist without this system . . . then I do think there is a higher moral and ethical burden.”

To read the full article featuring Professor Roberts in Consumer Reports, visit this link.

Photo by Stella Kalinina