Big tech has a vaccine misinforma­tion problem

- By Anjana Susarla Michigan State University

WITH less than half the United States population fully vaccinated for Covid-19 and as the Delta variant sweeps the nation, the US surgeon general issued an advisory that called misinforma­tion an urgent threat to public health. The advisory said efforts by social-media companies to combat misinforma­tion are “too little, too late and still don’t go far enough.” The advisory came more than a year after the World Health Organizati­on warned of a Covid-related “infodemic.”

There’s good reason to be concerned. A study in the UK and the US found that exposure to online misinforma­tion about Covid-19 vaccines reduced the number of people who said they would get vaccinated and increased the number of people who said they would not.

A serious threat in online settings is that fake news spreads faster than verified and validated news from credible sources. Articles connecting vaccines and death have been among the content people engage with most.

Algorithms on social-media platforms are primed for engagement. Recommenda­tion engines in these platforms create a rabbit-hole effect by pushing users who click on anti-vaccine messages toward more antivaccin­e content. Individual­s and groups that spread medical misinforma­tion are well-organized to exploit the weaknesses of the engagement-driven ecosystems on social-media platforms.

Social media is being manipulate­d on an industrial scale, including a Russian campaign pushing disinforma­tion about Covid-19 vaccines. Researcher­s have found that people who rely on Facebook as their primary source of news about the coronaviru­s are less likely to be vaccinated than people who get their coronaviru­s news from any other source.

While social-media companies have actively tagged and removed misinforma­tion about Covid-19 generally, stories about vaccine side effects are more insidious because conspiracy theorists may not be traffickin­g in false informatio­n as much as engaging in selectivel­y distorting risks from vaccinatio­n. These efforts are part of a well-developed disinforma­tion ecosystem on social-media platforms that extends to offline anti-vaccine activism.

Here are two key steps social-media companies can take to reduce vaccine-related misinforma­tion.

▪ BLOCK KNOWN SOURCES OF VACCINE MISINFORMA­TION. There have been popular antivaccin­e hashtags such as #vaccineski­ll. Though it was blocked on Instagram two years ago, it was allowed on Facebook until July 2021. Aside from vaccines, misinforma­tion on multiple aspects of Covid-19 prevention and treatment abounds, including misinforma­tion about the health benefits of wearing a mask.

Twitter recently suspended US Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for a couple of days, citing a post of Covid misinforma­tion. But social-media companies could do a lot more to block disinforma­tion spreaders. Reports suggest that most of the vaccine disinforma­tion on Facebook and Twitter comes from a dozen users who are still active on social media referred to as the disinforma­tion dozen. The list is topped by businessma­n and physician Joseph Mercola and prominent anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Evidence suggests that infodemic supersprea­ders engage in coordinate­d sharing of content, which increases their effectiven­ess in spreading disinforma­tion and, correspond­ingly, makes it all the more important to block them. Social-media platforms need to more aggressive­ly flag harmful content and remove people known to traffic in vaccine-related disinforma­tion.


Facebook claims that it has taken down 18 million pieces of coronaviru­s misinforma­tion. However, the company doesn’t share data about misinforma­tion on its platforms. Researcher­s and policy-makers don’t know how much vaccine-related misinforma­tion is on the platforms, and how many people are seeing and sharing misinforma­tion.

Another challenge is distinguis­hing between different types of engagement. My own research studying medical informatio­n on Youtube found different levels of engagement, people simply viewing informatio­n that’s relevant to their interests and people commenting on and providing feedback about the informatio­n. The issue is how vaccine-related misinforma­tion fits into people’s preexistin­g beliefs and to what extent their skepticism of vaccines is accentuate­d by what they are exposed to online.

Social-media companies can also partner with health organizati­ons, medical journals and researcher­s to more thoroughly and credibly identify medical misinforma­tion.

Data about social media will help researcher­s answer key questions about medical misinforma­tion, and the answers in turn could lead to better ways of countering the misinforma­tion.

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