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 fears.
"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 anxiety.
"Unfortunately, the 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 overpriced.
"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 researchers found.
"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.