With most in-person social activities canceled,
online social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Instagram have been a
lifeline. But as many of us scramble to find masks and other supplies, a D.C.-based
non-profit is warning about suspicious sellers capitalizing on coronavirus
“We are in the middle of
a national crisis, and the one thing we should expect of these companies we’ve
come to rely upon is to help us get through it,” said Tom Galvin, executive
director of Digital Citizens Alliance, which educates the public and
policymakers on threats consumers face on the internet.
Galvin says some platforms are actually
enabling criminals and other bad actors to prey on Americans’ COVID-19
prevalence of fake vaccine offers or masks that consumers may not get are very
prevalent on digital platforms,” Galvin said.
Digital Citizens Alliance teamed up with Coalition for a Safer Web and spent 18 days searching for and ordering coronavirus-related medical products — things like N95 masks, which are desperately needed by medical professionals, and things they know are fake, like COVID-19 vaccines and cures. Nothing the researchers ordered arrived.
“They were easy to
find,” said Galvin. “And the more you search, the algorithm
starts to see what you’re doing and sooner or later they’re searching for you,
because you start to get pop-ups on these things.”
The masks may or may not show up, may or may
not have the level of protection advertised and are often significantly
“If it turns out that
Americans get advised to wear masks more often, there is going to be a rush for
these online,” said Galvin. “And there are definitely online
sellers who are engaging in price gouging, preying on those fears.”
He believes the platforms should be flagging
any and all content that mentions the coronavirus or related products and
having each post reviewed by a human.
“That would actually
solve a lot of the internet safety issues we’re facing,” he said.
Facebook, which also owns Instagram, told the
I-Team it’s working on removing all ads for face masks, hand sanitizer,
disinfecting wipes and COVID-19 test kits. But many of its human content
reviewers are now working from home, for safety reasons, and mistakes can
happen when relying more heavily on technology. The platform says it is making
this area of abuse a high priority for review.
“Google, Facebook and
all these platforms have a significant challenge with the amount of content
that gets put on their sites,” Galvin said.
Galvin said most of the posts researchers
flagged were individuals advertising certain products. Those accounts often pop
up quickly and can be hard to track. The researchers contacted several of the
sellers using posted WhatsApp numbers. They often sent demands for payment with
bitcoin or with gift cards, which Galvin says is another red flag.
“This is the equivalent
of a person on the corner with their trunk open, selling things out of the back
of their trunk, except they’re now doing it on Facebook, Google, YouTube,
Instagram,” he said.
YouTube told the News4 I-Team it has clear
policies against COVID-19 misinformation and quickly removes the content when
it’s flagged. All of the channels the Digital Citizens Alliance researchers
found have since been removed; YouTube says there were very few views.
YouTube said it has manually removed thousands
of videos with misleading and dangerous coronavirus content and that the
platform is committed to providing helpful information for its users during
this critical time.
Digital Citizens Alliance sent letters to the
Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission reporting what the
“We have to do something to stop this online because it creates false information and, candidly, also creates false help, which only adds to Americans’ anxiety,” he said.
Reported by Jodie Fleischer, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.