Facebook Is Finally Banning Covid-19 Vaccine Misinformation

Matt Lillywhite

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Instagram managed to prominently display anti-vaccination pages in its search results nearly two months after the biggest vaccine launch in US history, while Facebook groups railing against vaccines remained straightforward to locate in the platform's search function.

For years, Facebook has grappled with fighting anti-vaxxer posts. Late last year, after promising to limit anti-vaxxer content dissemination, Facebook introduced new guidelines to combat Covid-19 vaccine misinformation. When the stakes may not be greater, misinformation about the vaccine could be the difference between life or death.

A problematic difference in the policy of Facebook is demonstrated by the reality that some of this anti-vaxx material tends to hide in plain sight on the platforms: a company spokeswoman claims Facebook clearly distinguishes between vaccination disinformation that it cracks down on and posts that share a more common anti-vaccine sentiment that it enables on the site.

In December, Facebook announced it will delete allegations regarding coronavirus vaccinations, including false conspiracy theories claiming they involve microchips, that have been refuted by public health authorities. Facebook's policy previously discouraged disinformation regarding Covid-19 that "contributes to the risk of imminent violence or physical harm."

Public health authorities also indicated they fear that misinformation regarding Covid-19 vaccinations and anti-vaccination posts on social media could contribute to individuals refusing to take the shot. "We would have a serious challenge getting out of this pandemic if they're scared away by falsehoods perpetuated by social media." "If they're scared away by falsehoods perpetuated through social media, we'll have a real problem of getting out of this pandemic," said Dr. L.J Tan, chief strategy officer of the Immunization Action Coalition.

The organization has been working to "reduce the number of people who see false information" regarding vaccinations, said Joe Osborne, a Facebook spokesman, and it is seeking to do "more to address other misleading vaccine content that falls outside of these policies."

Osborne noted that the organization excludes public health authorities' statements regarding the Covid-19 vaccine that have been dismissed and attaches labeling and limits the dissemination of such disinformation determined by its third-party fact-checking collaborators to be incorrect.

Facebook vowed to fight vaccination disinformation by narrowing the scope of such material on its sites after a measles epidemic spread through the US about two years ago but fell short of removing it entirely. Facebook said in March 2019 that it will "reduce the ranking of groups and Pages that spread misinformation about vaccinations" by not using them in tips or projections as users type in the search bar.

Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Mailman School of Public Health of Columbia University, called vaccine disinformation "very dangerous" on social media and said it may have "dire consequences." She said, "We are in a race with the virus," "We need everyone who's eligible for the vaccines to get vaccinated as soon as possible."

One public Facebook forum, which has more than 58,000 users, is dedicated to posts about suspected "vaccine injuries and reactions." Some recent posts on the group's page have links labeled by Facebook's independent fact-checkers as "false information" or have a label stating "Missing Context. Independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people."

One source that was shared — and classified as misleading by impartial fact-checkers — stated that because of the Covid-19 vaccination, 53 individuals died in Gibraltar. Despite the alert stickers, community participants appear to interact with these ties, voice their concerns regarding the truth checkers of Facebook, and post unsubstantiated reports or hypotheses concerning harmful vaccinations.

"A story doesn't have to be accurate to change minds. That's what we're fighting against right now," IAC's Tan said. "In the age of the internet, science is not the most compelling story."

El-Sadr of Columbia warned citizens to be careful of anecdotes or personal stories in certain Facebook groups that they read—which may or may not be real or have some links to the vaccine. "The vast majority of people thus far have had completely uneventful vaccinations. "We need to keep reminding people of this. These vaccines have had a very safe profile and are incredibly effective."

Photo via Unsplash

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