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People who mostly get news from social networks have some COVID-19 misconceptions

A new survey conducted by the Pew Research Center shows a COVID-19 information divide between people who mostly get their news from social networks and those who rely on more traditional news sources.

Pew surveyed 8,914 adults in the U.S. during the week of March 10, dividing survey respondents by the main means they use to consume political and election news. In the group of users that reports getting most of their news from social media, only 37% of respondents said that they expected the COVID-19 vaccine to be available in a year or more — an answer aligned with the current scientific consensus. In every other sample with the exception of the local TV group, at least 50% of those surveyed answered the question correctly. A third of social media news consumers also reported that they weren’t sure about the vaccine availability.

Among people who get most of their news from social media, 57% reported that they had seen at least some COVID-19 information that “seemed completely made up.” For people who consume most of their news via print media, that number was 37%.

Most alarmingly, people who primarily get their news via social media perceived the threat of COVID-19 to be exaggerated. Of the social media news consumers surveyed, 45% answered that the media “greatly exaggerated the risks” posed by the novel coronavirus. Radio news consumers were close behind, with 44% believing the media greatly exaggerated the threat of the virus, while only 26% of print consumers — those more likely to be paying for their news — believed the same.

The full results were part of Pew’s Election News Pathways project, which explores how people in the U.S. consume election news.

Facebook and Disney to downgrade streaming quality in Europe due to COVID-19

Facebook is temporarily downgrading the quality of video streaming in Europe on its social platforms Facebook and Instagram in response to a call for action from the European Commission, per Reuters.

Disney has also said it will work to shrink bandwidth used by its streaming service, Disney+, which is due to begin launching in Europe from tomorrow.

Last week Netflix, YouTube and Amazon said they would switch to SD streaming by default in the region.

The EU’s executive has expressed concerned about the load on Internet infrastructure during the coronavirus crisis as scores of citizens log on from home to work or try to keep themselves entertained during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Telcos in the region have reported significant increases in traffic as EU Member States have called for or instructed citizens to stay at home during the public health emergency.

Collectively, streaming platforms account for a major chunk of global Internet traffic. Online video accounted for more than 60% of the total downstream volume of traffic per a 2019 Sandvine report — while in another report last month it said YouTube alone accounted for a quarter of all mobile traffic.

“To help alleviate any potential network congestion, we will temporarily reduce bit rates for videos on Facebook and Instagram in Europe,” a Facebook spokesman also told Reuters yesterday.

We’ve reached out to Facebook with questions.

Per Reuters the measure will remain in place for as long as there are concerns about the region’s Internet infrastructure.

In related news Disney is pressing ahead with a planned launch of its new video streaming service, Disney+, in Europe starting from tomorrow but Bloomberg reports it will also take measures to reduce bandwidth utilization by at least 25% in European markets.

“We will be monitoring Internet congestion and working closely with Internet service providers to further reduce bitrates as necessary to ensure they are not overwhelmed by consumer demand,” said Kevin Mayer, chairman of Disney’s direct-to-consumer division, in a statement.

Last week the company said it would postpone the launch of Disney+ in India after the biggest local attraction — the Indian Premier League cricket tournament — was rescheduled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

YouTube goes SD streaming by default in Europe due to COVID-19

YouTube has switched to standard definition streaming by default in Europe.

We asked the company if it planned to do this yesterday — today a spokeswoman confirmed the step. The move was reported earlier by Reuters.

It’s a temporary measure in response to calls by the European Commission for streaming platforms to help ease demand on Internet infrastructure during the coronavirus crisis.

Users can still manually adjust video quality but defaults remain a powerful tool to influence overall outcomes.

A YouTube spokesperson confirmed the switch, sending us this statement:

People are coming to YouTube to find authoritative news, learning content and make connections during these uncertain times. While we have seen only a few usage peaks, we have measures in place to automatically adjust our system to use less network capacity. We are in ongoing conversations with the regulators (including Ofcom), governments and network operators all over Europe, and are making a commitment to temporarily default all traffic in the UK and the EU to Standard Definition. We will continue our work to minimize stress on the system, while also delivering a good user experience.

Yesterday Netflix announced it would default to SD streaming in the region for 30 days for the same reason.

In recent days the EU’s internet market commissioner, Thierry Breton, has held discussions with platform executives to urge them to help reduce the load on Internet infrastructure as scores of Europeans are encouraged or required to stay at home as part of quarantine measures.

The Commission is concerned about the impact on online education and remote work if there’s a major spike in demand for digital entertainment services — and is pushing for collective action from platforms and users to manage increased load on Internet infrastructure.

Breton met with Google CEO Sundar Pichai and YouTube CEO Susan Wojcick to press the case for lowering the quality of video streams during the coronavirus crisis.

Today he welcomed YouTube’s move. “Millions of Europeans are adapting to social distancing measures thanks to digital platforms, helping them to telework, e-learn and entertain themselves. I warmly welcome the initiative that Google has taken to preserve the smooth functioning of the Internet during the COVID19 crisis by having YouTube switch all EU traffic to Standard Definition by default. I appreciate the strong responsibility that Mr Pichai and Mrs Wojcicki have demonstrated. We will closely follow the evolution of the situation together,” said Breton in a statement. 

Google’s spokeswoman told us it hasn’t seen much change in regional traffic peaks so far but said there have been changes in usage patterns from more people being at home — with usage expanding across additional hours and some lower usage peaks. (The company routinely makes traffic data available in the Google Traffic and Disruptions Transparency Report.)

YouTube, along with other major social platforms, has faced scrutiny over the risks of their tools being used to spread coronavirus-related misinformation.

Although, in the case of Google, the company appears to have taken a proactive stance in suppressing bogus content and surfacing authoritative sources of health information. YouTube’s spokeswoman noted the homepage directs users to the World Health Organization for info on COVID-19 or other locally relevant authoritative organizations, for instance.

She also noted the company is donating ad inventory to governments and NGOs to use for education and information — pointing to a blog post earlier this month in which Pichai discussed some of the measures it’s taking to shield users from misinformation that could be harmful to public health.

YouTube will be rolling out a campaign rolling across Europe that encourages people to follow health authorities’ guidance and stay home, she added.

Google’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic looks to be a far swifter and more aggressive to the threat posed to public health than its approach to other types of content that can also be harmful to people’s health — such as anti-vaccination content, which YouTube only moved to demonetize last year.