Anti-vaccine accounts defy rules and thrive on social media
With COVID-19 vaccination well underway, social platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter say they have stepped up their fight against misinformation aimed at undermining confidence in vaccines.
For years, the same platforms have allowed anti-vaccination propaganda to flourish, making it difficult to eradicate such "feelings" now. And their efforts to eradicate other forms of misinformation about COVID-19 - often with fact checks, information labels and other restraint measures - have been woefully slow.
"Although they don't take action, lives are being lost," said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a watchdog group. In December, the nonprofit found that 59 million social platform accounts follow accounts of anti-vax propaganda - many of whom are hugely popular super spreaders of disinformation.
Attempts to tackle misinformation about vaccines now are generating censorship and prompting some posters to use covert tactics to avoid “banning”.
"It's a difficult situation because we've left this out for so long," said Jeanine Guidry, an assistant professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies social media and health information. "People who use social media have been able to share anything they want for almost a decade."
Of the more than 15 pages identified by NewsGuard, a technology company that analyzes website credibility, about half remain active on Facebook, the AP found.
One such page, The Truth About Cancer, has more than a million Facebook followers after years of posting unfounded suggestions that vaccines can cause autism or damage the brains of children. The page was identified by NewsGuard in November as a "COVID-19 super-disseminator of vaccine misinformation."
Recently, the page stopped posting about vaccines and the coronavirus. It now directs people to sign up for the newsletter and visit the website to avoid alleged 'censorship'.
Facebook said it is "taking aggressive measures to combat misinformation in our apps by removing millions of pieces of COVID-19 and vaccine content on Facebook and Instagram during the pandemic."
“Research shows that one of the best ways to promote vaccine acceptance is to show people accurate, reliable information. That's why we've connected 2 billion people to health authority sources and launched a global information campaign, ”the company said in a statement. .
Facebook also banned ads that discourage vaccines, saying it has added warning labels to more than 167 million pieces of additional COVID-19 content thanks to our network of fact-checking partners. (The Associated Press is one of Facebook's fact-checking partners).
YouTube, which has generally avoided the same kind of research as its peers on social media despite being a source of misinformation, said it has removed more than 30.000 videos since October, when it made false claims about COVID-19 vaccinations. began to ban. As of February 2020, it has removed more than 800.000 videos related to dangerous or misleading information about the coronavirus, YouTube spokeswoman Elena Hernandez said.
Prior to the pandemic, however, social media platforms had done little to eradicate misinformation, said Andy Pattison, digital solutions manager for the World Health Organization. In 2019, when a measles outbreak struck the Pacific Northwest and left dozens dead in American Samoa, Pattison pleaded with major tech companies to take a closer look at tougher rules surrounding vaccine misinformation that he feared would exacerbate the outbreak. - without result.
It wasn't until COVID-19 retaliated that many of those tech companies began to listen. Now he meets weekly with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to discuss trends on their platforms and policies to consider.
"When it comes to misinformation about vaccines, it's really frustrating that this has been around for years," said Pattison.
The goals of such a crackdown often adapt quickly. Some accounts intentionally use misspelled words - such as "vackseen" or " v @ x ”- to avoid deletion. (Social platforms say they are wise about this.) Other pages use more subtle messages, images, or memes to suggest that vaccines are unsafe or even deadly.
"If you die after the vaccine, you die from anything but the vaccine," a meme told an Instagram account with more than 65.000 followers. The post suggested the government is hiding deaths from the COVID-19 vaccine.
"It's a very fine line between freedom of speech and the erosion of science," said Pattison. Suppliers of misinformation, he said, "teach them the rules and they dance on the edge all the time."
Twitter said it is constantly reviewing its rules in the context of COVID-19 and changing them based on guidance and information from experts. Earlier this month, it added a "removal" policy that threatens to remove Twitterers about the coronavirus and vaccine misinformation.
But it is abundantly clear that false COVID-19 information keeps popping up. Earlier this month, several articles circulating online claimed that more elderly Israelis who took the Pfizer vaccine were "killed" by the vaccine than those who died from COVID-19 itself. One such article from an anti-vaccination website was shared nearly 12.000 times on Facebook, leading to a spike of nearly 40.000 reports of 'vaccine deaths' on social platforms and the Internet earlier this month, according to an analysis by media intelligence firm Zignal Labs. .
Medical experts point to a field study showing a strong correlation between vaccination and reduction of severe COVID-19 disease in Israel. The national health ministry said in a statement Thursday that the COVID-19 vaccine has "drastically" reduced deaths and hospitalizations.
As the vaccine supply in the US continues to increase, immunization efforts will soon shift from targeting a limited supply of the most vulnerable populations to getting as many injections as possible into as many poor people as possible. That means tackling the third of the country's population who say they won't or probably won't, as measured by an AP-NORC poll in February.
"Vaccination hesitation and misinformation could be a major barrier to getting enough of the population vaccinated to end the crisis," said Lisa Fazio, professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University.
Some health officials and academics generally believe that the social platform efforts are helpful, at least on the fringes. What is not clear is how big the impact is on the problem of making this stop.
"If someone really believes the COVID vaccine is harmful and they feel a responsibility to share it with friends and family ... then they will find a way," said Guidry.
And some still blame business models that they say have encouraged the platforms to provide compelling, if inaccurate, information about the coronavirus to take advantage of advertising.
When the Center for Countering Digital Hate recently studied the crossover between different types of disinformation and hate speech, it found that Instagram tended to cross-pollinate misinformation through its algorithm. Instagram may send an account following a QAnon conspiracy site more messages from, for example, white nationalists or anti-vaxxers.
“You allow important information to be lost due to the mixing of misinformation and information on your platforms,” said Ahmed, the center's CEO.