he Wall Street Journal has had something of a banner week tearing down Facebook. Its series on a trove of internal company documents obtained by the paper has unveiled Facebook’s secret system for treating certain users as above the rules, company research showing how harmful Instagram is for young girls, how the site’s algorithmic solutions to toxic content have backfired, and that Facebook executives are slow to respond to reports of organized criminal activity. On Friday, it published another article detailing how badly Facebook has fumbled fighting anti-vax content and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s campaign to get users vaccinated.
One big problem was that Facebook users were brigading any content addressing vaccination with anti-vax comments. Company researchers, according to the Journal, warned executives that comments on vaccine-related content were flooded with anti-vax propaganda, pseudo-scientific claims, and other false information and lies about the virus and the vaccines.
Global health institutions such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef had registered their concern with Facebook, with one internal company memo warning of “anti-vaccine commenters that swarm their Pages,” while another internal report in early 2021 made an initial estimate that up to 41% of comments on vaccine-related posts appeared to risk discouraging people from getting vaccinated (referred to within the company “barrier to vaccination” content). That’s out of a pool of around 775 million vaccine-related comments seen by users daily.
Facebook had promised in 2019 to crack down on antivax content and summoned WHO reps to meet with tech leaders in February 2020. Zuckerberg personally got in contact with National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases director Dr. Anthony Fauci to discuss funding vaccine trials, offer ad space and user data for government-run vaccination campaigns, and arrange a live Q&A between the two on the site. Facebook had also made adjustments to its content-ranking algorithm that a June 2020 memo claimed reduced health misinformation by 6.7% to 9.9%, the Journal wrote.
But by summer 2020, BS claims about the coronavirus and vaccines were going viral on the site, including the viral “Plandemic” video, a press conference staged by a group of right-wing weirdos calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors,” and a handful of anti-vax accounts such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s that advocacy group Avaaz later identified as responsible for a wildly disproportionate share of the offending content. According to the Journal, Facebook was well aware that the phenomenon was being driven by a relatively small but determined and prolific segment of posters and group admins:
As the rollout of the vaccine began early this year, antivaccine activists took advantage of that stance. A later analysis found that a small number of “big whales” were behind many antivaccine posts and groups on the platform. Out of nearly 150,000 posters in Facebook Groups disabled for Covid misinformation, 5% were producing half of all posts, and around 1,400 users were responsible for inviting half the groups’ new members, according to one document.
“We found, like many problems at FB, this is a head-heavy problem with a relatively few number of actors creating a large percentage of the content and growth,” Facebook researchers would write in May, likening the movement to QAnon and efforts to undermine elections.
Zuckerberg waffled and suggested that Facebook shouldn’t be in the business of censoring anti-vax posts in an interview with Axios in September 2020, saying “If someone is pointing out a case where a vaccine caused harm or that they’re worried about it —you know, that’s a difficult thing to say from my perspective that you shouldn’t be allowed to express at all.” This was a deeply incorrect assessment of the problem, as Facebook was well aware that a small group of bad actors was actively and intentionally pushing the anti-vax content.
Another internal assessment conducted earlier this year by a Facebook employee, the Journal wrote, found that two-thirds of randomly sampled comments “were anti-vax” (though the sample size was just 110 comments). In their analysis, the staffer noted one poll that showed actual anti-vaccine sentiment in the general population was 40% lower.
The Journal reported that one integrity worker flagged a post with 53,000 shares and three million views that asserted vaccines are “all experimental & you are in the experiment.” Facebook’s automated moderation tools had ignored it after somehow concluding it was written in the Romanian language. By late February, researchers came up with a hasty method to scan for “vaccine hesitant” comments, but according to the Journal their report mentioned the anti-vax comment problem was “rampant” and Facebook’s ability to fight it was “bad in English, and basically non-existent elsewhere.”