Defying the Rules, Anti-Vaccine Accounts Thrive on Social Media


With COVID-19 vaccination in full swing, social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter say they have stepped up their fight against misinformation that aims to undermine trust. in vaccines. But problems abound.

For years, the same platforms have allowed anti-vaccine propaganda is thriving, making it difficult to end those sentiments now. And its efforts to eliminate other types of COVID-19 misinformation, often with fact checks, informative labels, and other restricted measures, have been woefully slow.

Twitter, for example, announced this month which will remove dangerous vaccine falsehoods, in the same way as other COVID-related conspiracy and misinformation theories. But since April 2020, it has deleted a grand total of 8,400 tweets spreading COVID-related misinformation, a small fraction of the onslaught of pandemic-related falsehoods tweeted daily by popular users with millions of followers, critics say.

“While they don’t take action, lives are being lost,” said Imran Ahmed, executive director of the Center for Counter Digital Hate, a watchdog group. In December, the nonprofit found that 59 million accounts on social platforms follow street vendors of anti-vax propaganda, many of whom are immensely popular super-spreaders of misinformation.

However, efforts to crack down on vaccine misinformation are generating cries of censure and prompting some cartels to adopt sneaky tactics to avoid the ax.

“It’s a tough situation because we’ve let it go 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 really been able to share what they want for almost a decade.”

The Associated Press identified more than a dozen Facebook pages and Instagram accounts, which together have millions of followers, that have made false claims about the COVID-19 vaccine or discouraged people from taking it. Some of these pages have been around for years.

Of the more than 15 pages identified by NewsGuard, a technology company that tests website credibility, about half remain active on Facebook, the AP found.

One such page, The Truth About Cancer, has more than a million followers on Facebook after years of posting unsubstantiated suggestions that vaccines could cause autism or damage children’s brains. The page was identified in November as a “super spreader of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation” by NewsGuard.

Recently, the page stopped posting about vaccines and the coronavirus. You now instruct people to subscribe to your newsletter and visit your website as a way to avoid alleged “censorship.”

Facebook said it is taking “aggressive steps 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 and reliable information, which is why we have connected 2 billion people with resources from health authorities and launched an information campaign global, “the company said in a statement. .

Facebook also banned ads that discourage vaccines and said it has added warning labels to more than 167 million additional pieces of 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 scrutiny as its social media peers despite being a source of misinformation, said it has removed more than 30,000 videos since October, when it began banning false claims about vaccines. COVID-19. Since February 2020, it has removed more than 800,000 videos related to dangerous or misleading information about the coronavirus, YouTube spokeswoman Elena Hernández said.

However, before the pandemic, social media platforms had done little to remove misinformation, said Andy Pattison, manager of digital solutions at the World Health Organization. In 2019, when a measles outbreak struck the Pacific Northwest and left dozens dead in American Samoa, Pattison pleaded with big tech companies to take a closer look at tightening the rules on vaccine misinformation that he feared. the outbreak worsened, but to no avail.

It wasn’t until COVID-19 hit hard that many of those tech companies started listening. Now he meets weekly with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to discuss trends in their platforms and policies to consider.

“When it comes to vaccine misinformation, the really frustrating thing is that this has been around for years,” said Pattison.

The goals of such crackdowns are often quickly adapted. Some accounts intentionally misspelled words, such as “vackseen” or “v @ x,” to avoid bans. (Social platforms say they know it well.) Other pages use subtler messages, images or memes to suggest that vaccines are not safe or even deadly.

“When you die after the vaccine, you die from everything except the vaccine,” read a meme on an Instagram account with more than 65,000 followers. The post suggested that the government is hiding deaths from the COVID-19 vaccine.

“There is a fine line between free speech and the erosion of science,” said Pattison. Providers of misinformation, he said, “learn the rules and dance to the limit, all the time.”

Twitter said it is continually reviewing its rules in the context of COVID-19 and changing them based on expert guidance. Earlier this month, he added a strike policy that threatens repeat propagators of the coronavirus and vaccine misinformation with bans.

But blatantly false information about COVID-19 continues to emerge. Earlier this month, various articles circulating online claimed that more elderly Israelis who took the Pfizer vaccine were “killed” by the injection 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 earlier this month to an increase of nearly 40,000 mentions of “vaccine deaths” on social platforms and the Internet, according to an analysis. from media intelligence firm Zignal Labs.

Medical experts point to a real-world study showing a strong correlation between vaccination and the decline in severe COVID-19 disease in Israel. The nation’s Health Ministry said in a statement Thursday that the COVID-19 vaccine has “profoundly” reduced the rate of deaths and hospitalizations.

As vaccine supplies continue to grow in the United States, immunization efforts will soon shift from targeting a limited supply to the most vulnerable populations to receiving as many injections in as many arms as possible. That means addressing the third of the nation’s population who say they won’t get it or likely won’t get it, as measured by AP-NORC for February. poll.

“Hesitation and misinformation about vaccines 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’s efforts are helpful, at least on the margins. What is not clear is what impact they can have on the problem.

“If someone really believes that the COVID vaccine is harmful and feels a responsibility to share that with friends and family … they will find a way,” Guidry said.

And some still blame business models that they say encouraged platforms to offer attractive, albeit false, misinformation about the coronavirus in order to profit from the hype.

When the Center for the Fight Against Digital Hate recently studied the crossover between different types of disinformation and hate speech, it found that Instagram tended to pollinate misinformation through its algorithm. Instagram could feed an account that followed a QAnon conspiracy site with more posts from, say, anti-vaccine or white nationalists.

“You continue to allow things to fall apart due to the perfect combination of misinformation and information on your platforms,” ​​said Ahmed, the center’s executive director.

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