As the rollout of Covid-19 vaccines continues in the US, some lawmakers are concerned that ongoing misinformation and disinformation campaigns are exacerbating the vaccine’s hesitation. Now two senators are turning to the vaccine misinformation superspreaders that drive the bulk of conspiracy theories and lies on social media – urging the social media giants to take more aggressive action.
“For too long, social media platforms have not adequately protected Americans by not taking enough measures to prevent the spread of vaccine disinformation online,” wrote Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) in a Friday letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey viewed by Recode. “Despite your guidelines on preventing vaccine disinformation, many of these accounts continue to post content that reaches millions of users and repeatedly violate your guidelines with impunity.”
In particular, the senators urged companies to take action against 12 anti-vaccine influencers – 11 individuals and a couple – who distribute anti-vaccine content online. These reports include Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who drove suspicions about vaccines, and Joseph Mercola, an advocate of online alternative medicine who was also recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for promoting counterfeit Covid-19 remedies his still active, featured Twitter account.
These 12 companies were identified in a report released last month by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit that focuses on online hate and misinformation. To find these 12 influencers, the researchers identified 10 private and 20 public Facebook groups against vaccines that ranged in size from 2,500 to 235,000 members. The researchers then analyzed the links published in these groups and traced the sources of their links.
They found that up to 73 percent of this content, including the posts they share on Facebook, came from websites connected to these 12 super spreaders that had a reputation online through multiple accounts on various social media services -World against vaccines. In a broader sense, up to 65 percent of the anti-vaccine content the researchers identified on Facebook and Twitter appeared to come from these companies. At the time the report was published in March, nine of these super spreaders were active on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
In their Friday letter, the Senators asked for more details on the platforms’s approach to content moderation and for explanations as to why or not the content shared by these 12 super spreaders is against the rules of Facebook and Twitter. Senators also searched for more information on corporate investments in content moderation for color communities, rural communities, and non-English speaking communities, noting that some of the content published by the 12 superspreaders was “tailored to Black and Latino communities with Target anti-content -vaccine messages. “
In response to the pandemic and the launch of the vaccine, Facebook and Twitter have changed their approach to content moderation and health misinformation. Facebook, which also owns Instagram, has banned misinformation about vaccines and misinformation about Covid-19 that could lead to “imminent physical harm”. The company claims to have removed more than 12 million pieces of content that exceeded this threshold. Facebook has also conducted research into vaccine-reluctant comments on its service.
“Working with leading health organizations, we have updated our policies to take action against accounts that violate our Covid-19 and vaccination rules – including reducing their distribution or removing them from our platform – and we already have action against some of the groups taken in this report, “said Facebook spokesman Dani Lever to Recode. She added that the company has connected 2 billion people to health authority resources.
Twitter has taken a two-pronged approach to removing the vaccine’s most damaging misinformation and flagging other misleading tweets.
In general, these approaches have focused on individual content, not the broader behavior of certain influencers on the internet. This means that vaccine misinformation super-spreaders have more leeway to spread suspicion without necessarily sharing false claims about vaccines. Instead, they can promote “health freedom” to encourage people not to be vaccinated, present vaccination news in a misleading light, use social media to link to misleading claims on their own websites, and simply ask questions to sow doubt.
Update, April 19, 2021, 2:10 p.m. ET: This piece has been updated to include a comment from a Facebook speaker.
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