Facebook is under fire once again over the proliferation of vaccine misinformation on its platform, after Joe Biden said tech giants such as Facebook are “killing people” for failing to tackle the problem.
The White House has also zeroed in on the “disinformation dozen”: accounts that have been shown to be responsible for the bulk of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms.
And while Facebook has defended itself, saying it has removed more than 18m pieces of Covid misinformation, experts who study online misinformation say it has still largely failed to address the issue and that falsehoods about the vaccine are still reaching millions of people.
“Facebook has repeatedly said it is going to take action, but in reality we have seen a piecemeal enforcement of its own community standards where some accounts are taken off Instagram but not Facebook and vice versa,” said Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), the organization behind the “disinformation dozen” study cited by the White House. “There has been a systemic failure to address this.”
That report from March identified the 12 “superspreader” accounts. A Facebook spokesman said the company permanently bans pages, groups, and accounts that “repeatedly break our rules on Covid misinformation”, including “more than a dozen pages, groups, and accounts from these individuals”.
In the months since the study was released, the CCDH confirmed social platforms have taken action against members of the “dozen”, removing 35 accounts across social media. They have lost 41% of their followers – 5.8 million – but still have 8.4 million followers total and 62 active accounts.
Misinformation experts have condemned platforms for taking down some of the most egregious accounts, but not others. For instance, the anti-vaccine figurehead Robert F Kennedy Jr still has an account on Facebook, despite being banned from Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
The alternative medicine doctor Joseph Mercola also remains on Facebook, where he has made a number of vaccine-skeptical posts in recent weeks that were reshared hundreds of times by his 1.7 million followers. He has also used the platform to promote his anti-vaccination book The Truth About Covid-19.
Other research has also shown the scale of the problem remains vast. Many posts falsely imply that the vaccine is not safe, not effective, or not worth getting despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One prevailing, baseless conspiracy theory is that the vaccine implants users with a tracking microchip.
Experts say these posts are particularly prevalent on Spanish-language Facebook – an area of the platform they say Facebook does not devote enough resources to moderating.
“Facebook needs a much better mechanism to stop the spread of false information about the vaccine, and they need to make sure they’re doing that across languages,” said Jessica González, the co-CEO at Free Press, a media equity group. She added it is difficult to gauge the scope of the issue when Facebook does not share figures.
According to the social media watchdog Accountable Tech, 11 out of the top 15 vaccine related-posts on Facebook last week contained disinformation or were anti-vaccine. Another leading post on Facebook about the Covid-19 vaccines last week was a deeply inaccurate anti-vaccine rant from the rightwing Candace Owens, according to FWIW, a newsletter which tracks digital ad spends.
And the number one Facebook post in the entire country about the vaccine on Friday was Marjorie Taylor Greene calling removal of Covid disinformation “communism”, according to Facebook’s in-house analysis tool Crowdtangle.
Taylor Greene – who is not named in the top 12 disinformation spreaders but is often flagged for sharing falsehoods about Covid and other issues – was temporarily suspended from Twitter on Monday. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.
Biden’s stark condemnation comes as Covid-19 vaccine uptake is plateauing in the US and new cases are again on the rise. The administration missed its 4 July target of 70% of Americans receiving at least one Covid-19 vaccine dose. As of 8 July, only 67% American adults had received one dose of the vaccine, while 58% were fully vaccinated.
Federal officials are increasingly blaming flagging vaccination rates and rising cases in the US on social media platforms that have failed to police misinformation tied to vaccine hesitancy. “There is an overarching narrative being shared that the vaccine is not effective,” said Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, recently. “Health misinformation is a serious threat to public health.”
A Facebook spokesman pointed the Guardiane to a blogpost penned by Guy Rosen, the vice-president of content policy, in which he asserted the platform’s users have shown increased vaccine acceptance rates over the past six months.
“The data shows that 85% of Facebook users in the US have been or want to be vaccinated against Covid-19,” he said. “President Biden’s goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed.”
The spread of health misinformation is the latest hurdle for social media firms as they stare down potential antitrust action. On Sunday, the Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar said action should be taken regarding vaccine misinformation.
“Social media has greatly contributed to this misinformation – there’s no doubt,” she said. “When we have a public health crisis and people are dying every day, enough is enough.”