Big Tech and Anti-Vax Misinformation

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  • COVID vaccine misinformation continues to proliferate on social media and has driven down vaccination rates, leading to a major uptick in COVID cases in the U.S.
  • The World Health Organization has ranked vaccine hesitancy as a top threat to global health. The U.S. Surgeon General said misinformation on COVID vaccines presented “a clear and present danger” to those who needed to be protected from COVID. Dr. Fauci went so far as to say that Smallpox and Polio wouldn’t have been eradicated if those vaccines faced the same level of misinformation as the COVID vaccine has.
  • Social media has been largely to blame for the lack of dissemination of the vaccine. A researcher from Columbia University said the internet and social media were “creating havoc” and major factors in why people were holding out on getting the vaccine.
  • The main social media platform driving COVID vaccine misinformation and vaccine hesitancy was Facebook.
    • It was found that those who read news about COVID on Facebook were less likely to be vaccinated and more strident in their opposition to the vaccine... even more so than Fox News viewers. The only group who had lower vaccination rates was those who got their news from Newsmax.[1]
    • Facebook users were among the most likely to believe misinformation about COVID vaccines. And despite being aware of the misinformation flowing on its platform, Facebook did little to curb its spread.
    • For months after being alerted to the ‘Disinformation Dozen’, Facebook did not take their pages or related pages off their site. By July 2021, one of the members of the ‘Disinformation Dozen’ had 1.7 million followers and an additional 1 million followers on his Spanish language page. In August 2021, it was found that Facebook continued to host at least 24 pages identified as propagators of vaccine misinformation, some of which overlapped with the ‘Disinformation Dozen.’ Further, a watchdog group found that during one week in July 2021, 11 out of the top 15 vaccine related posts on Facebook contained misinformation or were anti-vaccine.[2]
    • Facebook has refused to share how many Americans viewed vaccine misinformation. Researchers have been blocked from enough real-time data that they needed to figure out just how much misinformation Americans were viewing that could be causing vaccine hesitancy. Critics have said Facebook’s disinterest in releasing data on the spread of vaccine misinformation on its site meant we couldn’t have a meaningful debate about the spread of vaccine information.[3]
    • Facebook’s own data scientists reported difficulty studying misinformation of the platform themselves.
  • While Facebook was a driving force behind COVID vaccine misinformation, it wasn’t the only social media site doing so.
  • In June 2021, it was found that Twitter hosted at least 1,600 accounts that were spreading vaccine misinformation. Twitter bots were also found to be a driver of vaccine misinformation. And while anti-vaxxer’s produced fewer original posts on Twitter, they shared more content than profiles of those who were pro-vaccination.[4]
  • YouTube hosted thousands of videos that pushed vaccine misinformation, one of which was viewed 2 million times and only taken down after a reporter inquired about it.[5]
  • On Instagram, Russia was found to have hundreds of profiles engaged in vaccine misinformation campaigns.[6]
    • Further, a reporter found that Instagram’s top featured results for the hashtag #vaccine included anti-vaccination posts. Misinformation was also found to be spreading on TikTok, with some videos being viewed millions of times.
  • Reddit hosted subreddits with tens of thousands of followers that pushed COVID conspiracy theories. Reddit’s response? “Quarantining” the subreddit, which only meant that its posts could get to the r/all thread and users had to be logged in to visit the subreddit.
  • Social media companies failed to act on 95% of COVID related misinformation and largely unimpactful measures like machine learning and human fact-checkers to moderate posts and flag misinformation.
    • To study how successful Facebook had been in suppressing anti-vaccine posts, a set of researchers set up two new Facebook profiles and started searching vaccine related content. On one profile, the researchers started out by searching the word “vaccine.” Afterwards, more and more anti-vaccine pages started showing up in his results.
    • On the other profile, the researchers liked an anti-vaccine page. The researcher said “opening and liking several of these pages, in turn, led our account further into a network of harmful pages. The researchers noted that the anti-vaccine pages were “seemingly linked together and boosted by Facebook’s recommendation algorithm.
  • Social media companies had done too little – too late to tamp down vaccine misinformation. The ‘Disinformation Dozen’ were identified in March 2021, but it took Facebook until August 2021 to take action against the pages. And while the site did take down three dozen pages, groups and Facebook and Instagram accounts, they still allowed the ‘Disinformation Dozen’s” websites to be posted on their site, albeit the pages were buried at the bottom of users' news feeds. Further, the hashtag #vaccineskill was allowed on Facebook until July 2021. The subreddit that promoted COVID conspiracy theories and vaccine misinformation was merely “quarantined” but not taken down.
  • Twitter launched a feature that would allow users to flag misinformation on COVID, but the site acknowledged they wouldn’t review every report and called the feature “an experiment.”
    • Those pushing COVID vaccine misinformation used sneaky tactics like nuanced posts that manipulated facts and pushed unproven scientific theories, code words and posts discussing studies that had been refuted by doctors.
  • Facebook used these tactics to argue content on the site was difficult to regulate and couldn’t always “be clearly divided into helpful and harmful.” When the Biden administration attempted to persuade Facebook to crack down on vaccine misinformation, things became “combative” and Facebook shrugged off the administration's pleas. The White House was so frustrated during their meetings with Facebook that they demanded to meet with the site's data scientists instead of lobbyists. And despite their meetings, the two did not come up with a concrete solution for curbing vaccine misinformation on the site.
    • Facebook has been largely lackadaisical with how it approaches the administration.
    • Before Biden became President, Facebook refused to provide the Chief Technology Officer of the Biden transition team access to data on how much misinformation was viewed on their site. And when the Chief Technology Officer asked to meet with Facebook’s data scientists, Facebook didn’t agree, saying their lead engineer for Health Efforts had already been in their meetings.
  • The spread of misinformation on the COVID vaccine has had devastating real-world effects. Many Americans have fell for vaccine misinformation, with 42% of survey respondents saying they believed at least one COVID conspiracy. Americans increasingly engage with misinformation, with NPR finding that articles connecting vaccines and death had been among the most highly engaged content online in 2021.
    • In southern California, an anti-COVID vax protest shut down a vaccine center at Dodgers stadium.
    • One woman believed vaccine misinformation so much that she was actively promoting it while her husband was hospitalized and on a ventilator because of COVID.
  • The result of vaccine misinformation led to an explosion in COVID cases in the U.S. Over two weeks in July, COVID cases nearly tripled. The explosion of cases has led the Governors in the least vaccinated states to speak out.
    • In Alabama, the Governor wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post attacking misinformation on COVID and urging her citizens to get vaccinated.
    • In Arkansas, the Governor went on a road tour to try and help residents overcome the vaccine hesitancy resulting from misinformation. Further, some public officials in the least vaccinated states were harassed and heckled.
    • In Louisiana, the state’s top public health official was heckled as he testified before state lawmakers on the efficacy of mask wearing and the safety of vaccines. Attendees repeatedly argued that the COVID vaccine had killed dozens of Louisianans.
    • In Mississippi, the state’s Department of Health had to shut down Facebook comments on their page because they had become dominated by misinformation.
    • And in Florida, there was more than a 10% drop in vaccination rates between those who had seen vaccine misinformation and those who hadn’t. Those who hadn’t seen vaccine misinformation had a vaccination rate of 73.8%, whereas those who had seen vaccine misinformation had a vaccination rate of 62.9%.
  • To combat vaccine misinformation, Amy Klobuchar introduced a bill that would take away liability protections for tech companies when it came to health misinformation on their platform. But, Klobuchar lacked Republican support and the bill was expected to go nowhere. There wasn’t nearly enough investment in combatting COVID misinformation. Less than one-half of 1% of money dedicated to COVID vaccine research, production and distribution went towards addressing misinformation. The U.S. Surgeon General has called on social media sites to change their products and software to reduce the spread of misinformation.