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Coronavirus Online Threats Going Viral, Part 5: Social Media

For our final blog in this series, looking at the online risks associated with COVID-19, we focus on social media.

The popularity of social media channels means that they are extremely susceptible to exploitation by cybercriminals and other infringers, particularly during the coronavirus crisis. In an earlier post in this series, we discussed the use of social media for the distribution of phishing-related content, but CSC has also noted marked activity relating to the creation of fake accounts relating to COVID-19, and the distribution of incorrect or misleading information.

Many social media pages referencing the coronavirus are simply personal blogs or feeds, providing general information on health and well-being. However, others offer news, tracking, or other updates relating to the spread of COVID-19, in many cases, with no affiliation to officially verified sources or channels.

Figure 1: Examples of coronavirus-related profiles on: (top) Instagram (referencing the official website of the World Health Organization); (middle) Facebook®; (bottom) Twitter®.

In our study, we found a range of different content that could potentially be associated with scams, including profiles linking to:

  • A site soliciting donations, purportedly for the purchase of supplies for a local hospital
  • Sites offering  healthcare products for sale
  • Sites offering coronavirus tracking services
Figure 2: Examples of linked sites from coronavirus-related social media profiles: (i) a donations page; (ii) an eCommerce site selling face masks; (iii) a site offering a coronavirus tracking service.

Numerous cases of the spread of fake, coronavirus-related news across social media have also been reported. This creates significant concern in a climate where the availability of accurate information is crucial, not only to avoid scams but also to combat the spread of the disease. Some of the most prolific areas of content include anti-vaccination groups, claims that the virus has been bio-engineered by government[1], and content linking COVID-19 to the spread of 5G technology.

Although some social media platforms are becoming more proactive in combatting fake or harmful content, some content will invariably make it through. In these cases, brand owners may wish to consider directly requesting content removal.

CSC has experience in combatting this. Most recently, a technology service provider brought an urgent case to our attention, where two videos had been posted falsely stating that one of the company’s 5G technology products had caused the coronavirus outbreak and that it was attempting to cover it up. CSC approached the social media platform and requested the removal of content on multiple grounds, including breaches of trademark and site policy, resulting in a removal of the content within three hours.

What can brand owners do?

Social Media Monitoring services are able to identify relevant content within profiles and usernames, or individual posts, using a combination of direct site monitoring, information from search engines, and comprehensive data feeds drawn directly from social media sites. We generally advise brand owners to incorporate an element of social media monitoring into any holistic brand protection service. Many social media sites operate intellectual property protection programs where brands or their brand protection provider can request the removal of infringing content, although the exact criteria and requirements for enforcement vary from site to site.

If you see social media posts incorporating branded promotional content in conjunction with undesirable material, you should consider contacting your marketing service providers to control the context and placement of your content.

Finally, there will be some content that isn’t associated with any particular brand, and individual users can contact the sites directly, using public online tools covering all matters outside of intellectual property issues. Due to the nature of scams in general, we normally expect social media sites to be compliant with requests for the removal of such content. If you would like to find out more about our Social Media Monitoring services, click here, or fill out our online form to be contacted by one of our team.

By David Barnett, Brand Protection Strategist at Stobbs

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