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Ex-Obama official: ‘Deluge’ of coronavirus misinformation online is ‘really dangerous’

Max Zahn with Andy Serwer
·3 min read

While coronavirus continues to spread, with President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump recently testing positive for COVID-19, so does false information about it on social media.

People who get their news from social media are more likely to believe misinformation about the novel coronavirus, according to a study released last week by researchers at several universities, including Harvard University.

Gayle Smith, who helped fight the 2014 Ebola outbreak as the National Security Council’s top development official and later headed the USAID under Obama, told Yahoo Finance before Trump’s diagnosis that the quick spread and sheer amount of misinformation about the coronavirus online is “really, really dangerous” as the U.S. struggles to contain the outbreak.

The comments from Smith followed a question from Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer about misinformation about the pandemic that appears on platforms like Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR), and YouTube (GOOG, GOOGL).

“We've always faced people who put falsehoods into the mix, or sell products that aren't what they claim to be,” Smith, now the CEO of anti-poverty organization ONE Campaign, said on Sept. 1.

“When it's on the internet, when you look at scale and speed, we're in a bit of a deluge right now,” she adds. “It’s really, really dangerous.”

U.S. leadership has also exacerbated the spread of false information online, Smith said.

“As dangerous as that is,” she says. “That is where leadership and how you manage a pandemic comes into play.”

In July, a video that made false claims about the coronavirus received tens of millions of views and amplification from Trump when it went viral — until Facebook and Twitter removed it from their platforms. The social media companies drew criticism from public health advocates, including former Microsoft CEO and philanthropist Bill Gates, who said the platforms should have taken down the video faster.

Smith spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.

Smith, who worked alongside former Vice President Joe Biden, said she would congratulate him if he wins the presidential election in November.

Gayle Smith, CEO of the ONE Campaign and former head of USAID under the Obama administration, appears on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."
Gayle Smith, CEO of the ONE Campaign and former head of USAID under the Obama administration, appears on "Influencers with Andy Serwer."

“In a pandemic, facts are ammunition,” Smith says. “It would be great to have science and facts and data that could help guide through that.”

She said widespread distrust of science obstructs effective handling of the pandemic. According to a Pew survey released in May, 46% of U.S. adults hold a fair amount of confidence in medial scientists to act in the best interests of the public, down from 52% last year and 60% in 2016.

The survey, conducted in April, marked an uptick in trust of scientists over the first month of the outbreak, though the increase came mainly among people who identify as Democrats.

“We need to re-legitimize science,” Smith says. “It's kind of shocking to think that that's necessary.”

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