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Misinformation 'superspreaders': Covid vaccine falsehoods still thriving on Facebook and Instagram

Guardian Technology 06 Jan 2021 11:00

Conspiracy theories and misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine are still spreading on Facebook and Instagram, more than a month after Facebook pledged it would take them down.

Under pressure to contain an avalanche of falsehoods, Facebook announced on 3 December that it would ban debunked claims about the safety and efficacy of vaccines now being distributed worldwide. The company said it removed more than 12m pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram between March and October, and that it worked with factcheckers to place labels on 167 million more pieces of content over the same period.

But researchers say that big Facebook accounts, some with more than half a million followers and long histories of promoting falsehoods, are still openly churning out new posts questioning the vaccine. Meanwhile, prominent anti-vaxxers who have been banned from Facebook are continuing to spread misinformation to hundreds of thousands of people on Instagram, which Facebook owns.

The social network says it has limited the reach of some prominent anti-vaxx Facebook pages, and that few people are seeing some of the latest coronavirus misinformation. But misinformation experts say the platform’s actions amount to far too little, too late.

“Anything less than the dismantling of these individuals’ profiles, pages and groups and permanent denial of service, now they know what is happening, is willing acquiescence.”

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, the World Health Organization had labeled “vaccine hesitancy” – the reluctance to get vaccines even when they are available – as one of the top 10 threats to global health.

Major anti-vaccine accounts on social media platforms have gained more than 10 million new followers since 2019, including 4 million additional followers on Instagram and 1 million on Facebook, according to an analysis by the CCDH.

But the fast timeline and intense political pressure to produce a coronavirus vaccine have left people around the world questioning whether they should trust the new vaccines and looking for honest answers – a situation anti-vaxx groups were well-prepared to exploit.

In October, leading anti-vaccine activists held a private online conference to strategize on how to use the public’s fears during the coronavirus pandemic to spread skepticism about vaccines, according to CCDH, which documented the conference speeches and conversations in a December report. At the conference, Del Bigtree, a prominent US anti-vaxx activist, summarized a three-point strategy for undermining public faith: “It’s dangerous. You don’t need it. And herd immunity is your friend,” he said, according to the report.

But Bigtree is still operating an Instagram account with more than 212,000 followers, where he posts videos that regularly receive between 30,000 and 150,000 views.

“We don’t know what kind of mutated viral experience is happening inside the person that’s gone and gotten the vaccine,” Bigtreee says in one Instagram video, suggesting that if he saw someone he knew had received the vaccine in public, he would “cross to the other side of the street”.

Researchers say that some of the most powerful anti-vaccine messaging operates by selectively presenting real data and anecdotes that foster doubt, rather than sharing explicitly false claims.

“The trick with vaccine hesitancy: it’s not always misinformation. It’s not always things that are demonstrably untrue. It’s stuff that makes you question and doubt,” said Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public who has studied anti-vaccine activists on social media since 2015.

“A lot of the accounts that were removed from the Facebook platform remain active on Instagram, with enormous follower counts,” Anna-Sophia Harling, the head of Europe for NewsGuard, a company that rates the accuracy and trustworthiness of news websites, and that also produces public reports on social media vaccine misinformation, said. “Instagram has a huge Covid-19 vaccine problem.”

‘Super-spreaders’ of misinformation

But as the death toll from coronavirus soared in 2020, and Facebook’s platform became a recruiting and organizing tool for protests against public health measures and even new US domestic terrorist groups, the company began to take more aggressive action to crack down on misinformation linked to real-world destruction.

The company says it is also continuing to limit the reach of groups and pages that spread anti-vaxx misinformation, so that fewer people encounter the content, and touts its efforts to connect users with authoritative information on Covid-19 from health officials, citing that over 600 million people have clicked on pop-ups on Facebook and Instagram to learn more from official sources.

But a month after Facebook launched its aggressive new policy, researchers who study anti-vaccine activism say that false claims are still easy to find, and that many posts with misinformation do not have any additional warning labels.

A Facebook spokesperson said that all of the pages flagged in the NewsGuard report were already facing consequences for posting material repeatedly flagged by Facebook’s factcheckers. The distribution of their posts into Facebook’s news feed had been dramatically reduced, meaning that fewer people would see them, the spokesperson said, and the pages were no longer being recommended to people who did not already follow them.

The spread of these kinds of conspiracy theories appears to be having real-world consequences. In Wisconsin, a pharmacist told police he had tried to destroy hundreds of doses of coronavirus vaccine because he believed the shots would mutate people’s DNA, according to court documents released on Monday.

A Facebook spokesperson said that the post referring to the coronavirus vaccine as the “mark of the beast” did not violate company policies, and that it was also not eligible for factchecking. The spokesperson added that Facebook was only removing claims about the coronavirus vaccine that had officially been debunked by health authorities, and that this was an evolving process.

While posts on both Worldtruth.tv and GreenMedInfo have received relatively little engagement – a sign, Facebook says, that its efforts to limit distribution are working – researchers say it is frustrating to see a continuing tide of falsehoods from the same “bad actors” who have been at work since the pandemic began. “These are not new actors in the misinformation space,” says Gregory. “They didn’t pop up yesterday.”

“You don’t have to wait for them to publish another vaccine claim that will take a few days for a responsible journalist to address, and then slap a factchecking label on it,” he says “You know what these pages are going to do beforehand.”

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