Many of us have a love/hate relationship with Facebook – but most of us realized how little it cared about anti-vaccine posts when the COVID-19 vaccines were starting to show high effectiveness and safety in clinical trials. Once we began to believe that we might have COVID-19 vaccines by the end of 2020 (which proved to be true), the anti-vaxxers started to move into full action.
I even started to track and debunk the ridiculous claims of the COVID-19 vaccine deniers, most of which I found on various Facebook posts and comments.
And now, with only about 58% of the US population, or around 191 million individuals, having been fully vaccinated, it seems to be more difficult to reach the goal of around 80% of the population who are fully vaccinated to reach herd immunity.
I hate to blame Facebook for all of society’s ills, but it’s clear that they are deeply responsible for the lack of COVID-19 vaccine uptake in the USA and many other countries. Given that only 12 accounts on social media are responsible for around 73% of the anti-vaccine content, it would have been easy for Facebook to block those accounts and keep the noise to a minimum.
But they didn’t. And based on extensive investigations by a consortium of news services across the world, Facebook provided safe harbor for these COVID-19 vaccine deniers for one reason – profits.
Where did this information come from?
This is a science website, so finding evidence to support or reject a claim takes a little work, but most of the data is out there in places like PubMed, the NIH-run database of just about every biomedical article that’s been published over the past 150 years, or Google Scholar, a similar database run by another one of those large internet corporations.
But what if I want to know how Facebook dealt with anti-vaccine zealots? Well, there’s no PubMed for social media corporate activities.
Well, we got lucky. Facebook’s internal discussions about their vaccine and anti-vaccine actions were revealed in disclosures made to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and provided to the US Congress by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Frances Haugen. The redacted versions, called the Facebook Papers, were obtained by a consortium of news organizations, which included 17 US news organizations.
Facebook and anti-vaccine activity
By March 2021, as several vaccines, from Moderna, Pfizer, JNJ, and AstraZeneca had received Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) in many developed countries, there was a clear uptake in anti-vaccine messaging. False claims about the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines filled the “airwaves” of social media.
At first, Facebook employees proposed a plan to fight this anti-vaccine messaging – they’re the heroes of this story.
How did they do this? They could alter how posts about vaccines were ranked in people’s news feeds, so they could curtail the misleading and false information about COVID-19 vaccines. In addition, Facebook could offer posts about COVID-19 and the vaccines from legitimate sources, like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Unfortunately, Facebook management decided to shelve some of the ideas and postponed implementing others until April 2021.
Another Facebook employee suggested that they disabled comments on anti-vaccine posts, but it also was ignored by Facebook management.
Why would you not remove comments? Because engagement is the only thing that matters. It drives attention and attention equals eyeballs and eyeballs equal ad revenue.”
Ms. Haugen’s trove of documents show one thing clearly – Facebook is selling fear, uncertainty, and doubt, which also happens to be the anti-vaccine movement’s modus operandi.
The Wall Street Journal reported on some of Facebook’s efforts to deal with anti-vaccine comments in September 2021. Employees regularly made suggestions to management for methods to stop the proliferation of misinformation and lies about the COVID-19 vaccines.
Of course, nothing happened. As someone who has a pro-vaccine presence on Facebook and Twitter, I was not shocked. I and many others had noticed a huge uptick in anti-vaccine lies and deceit about the COVID-19 vaccines on social media platforms. We were kind of used to it with other vaccines, especially the MMR vaccine, but the junk science about the COVID-19 vaccines reached a whole different level of stupidity.
Facebook usually ranks posts by something called “engagement.” The total number of likes, disliked, comments, and reshares are entered into some mysterious algorithm, and it spits out a ranking. Of course, divisive topics like vaccines cause engagement to skyrocket, because everyone has an “opinion” with few facts.
I personally almost never comment on anti-vaccine posts, because I don’t want to add to the engagement (and I would suggest that no one does). I’ll engage in pro-vaccine posts and strongly criticize anti-vaccine lunacy there. But in general, the polarization around vaccines, and other public health issues during this pandemic like face masks, helps with engagement. And when engagement goes up, so does advertising revenue.
Anti-vaccine equals pro-profits
Facebook actually tried to do an experiment to see if they could reduce the anti-vaccine messaging on the platform. Facebook researchers changed how vaccine information posts were ranked for more than 6,000 users in the USA, Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippines.
The posts that they saw about vaccines were not chosen based on their popularity (or engagement), they saw posts that were weighted to trustworthiness.
They found that there was a 12% decrease in content that made anti-vaccine claims that were debunked by fact-checkers, while there was an 8% increase in content from public health organizations such as the WHO and CDC.
Facebook claims that it did implement some of the study’s findings, but it waited for another month. And that period of time was a key point in the vaccine rollout across the world. If you think back to that time, there was a slowing in the excitement and enthusiasm to get vaccinated. It was very frustrating for those of us who were doing what we could to contradict the anti-vaccine claims.
Countries across the world were rolling out vaccines to the most vulnerable — the elderly and those with risk factors for COVID-19. Only 10% of the population had received their first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at that point in time. Moreover, polling showed that over 30% were hesitant about the vaccine. According to the Facebook Papers, company researchers found that as many as 60% of comments on vaccine posts were anti-vaccine or vaccine-hesitant.
Any pro-vaccine post, from legitimate public health sources like the CDC and respected news organizations, were swarmed, and I mean that literally, with anti-vaccine messaging. I hate comments sections, but you just could avoid it. And again, Facebook’s engagement algorithms appeared to put the most incredulous comments at the top of the comments section.
This was precisely the time when Facebook should have reigned in the anti-vaccine messaging. Instead, they didn’t or they delayed. How many deaths could have been avoided if Facebook stopped that anti-vaccine rhetoric that was being spread across their platform? I don’t know, but even one death avoided makes me think that Facebook chose the immoral path for profits, rather than the right path.
It’s clear that the breadth and depth of the anti-vaccine attacks on Facebook were surprising to everyone, even Facebook employees themselves. Facebook probably went into some crisis management strategy that could charitably be called ineffective.
According to reporting by the Associated Press on the Facebook Papers:
Anti-vaccine comments on Facebook grew so bad that even as prominent public health agencies like UNICEF and the World Health Organization were urging people to take the vaccine, the organizations refused to use free advertising that Facebook had given them to promote inoculation, according to the documents.
So Facebook knew it had a problem with the anti-vaccine comments, and some employees suggested removing ALL comments on vaccine posts to give it time to figure out how to remove anti-vaccine posts and comments. Simple solution right?
Unfortunately for the sake of vaccine facts, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on March 15 that it would start labeling accurate posts about vaccines as factual. But it did nothing about the comments, which, as we know now, were mostly anti-vaccine. Thus, Facebook could still make huge profits from the high engagement for these posts.
Zuckerberg could claim that they were marking the fact-checked pro-vaccine posts as safe, for a good public relations image. But they were still raking in profits from the comments, which are what destroy the facts about the COVID-19 vaccines.
Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate said:
They were trying to find ways to not reduce engagement but at the same time make it look like they were trying to make some moves toward cleaning up the problems that they caused.
I think that the anti-vaccine movement has gotten a tailwind that will carry it to start pushing the lies and misinformation about all vaccines, not just for COVID-19. Those of us who are writing science-based articles about the COVID-19 vaccines seem to be caught in a riptide of anti-vaccine junk science, misinformation, disinformation, and outright lies.
And while I can tell you over and over again that publishing articles using the VAERS database is not the way we should analyze COVID-19 vaccine safety, Facebook fills its bank vaults with more money. They let the anti-vaccine crackpots claim that more people have died from the vaccine, using that miserable VAERS database, which drowns out the facts that I and others can post.
It’s frustrating. And there are days when I want to end it all and write about fly fishing. Or volcanoes.
I don’t think anyone has the desire to control Facebook. Governments appear to be afraid of Facebook and Twitter, so I’m not holding my breath that they will do anything to reign in Facebook.
But I’ll keep trying to present the scientific facts. Maybe just for my own conscience.