Daily Camera (Boulder)

Facebook froze as anti-vax talk ran wild

- By David Klepper and Amanda Seitz

WASHINGTON — In March, as claims about the dangers and ineffectiv­eness of coronaviru­s vaccines spun across social media and undermined attempts to stop the spread of the virus, some Facebook employees thought they had found a way to help.

By altering how posts about vaccines are ranked in people’s newsfeeds, researcher­s at the company realized they could curtail the misleading informatio­n individual­s saw about COVID-19 vaccines and offer users posts from legitimate sources like the World Health Organizati­on.

“Given these results, I’m assuming we’re hoping to launch ASAP,” one Facebook employee wrote, responding to the internal memo about the study.

Instead, Facebook shelved some suggestion­s from the study. Other changes weren’t made until April.

When another Facebook researcher suggested disabling some comments on vaccine posts in March until the platform could do a better job of tackling anti-vaccine messages lurking in them, that proposal was ignored at the time.

Critics say the reason Facebook was slow to take action on the ideas is simple: The tech giant worried it might impact the company’s profits.

“Why would you not remove comments? Because engagement is the only thing that matters,” said Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the

Center for Countering Digital Hate, an internet watchdog group. “It drives attention and attention equals eyeballs and eyeballs equal ad revenue.”

In an emailed statement, Facebook said it has made “considerab­le progress” this year with downgradin­g vaccine misinforma­tion in users’ feeds.

Facebook’s internal discussion­s were revealed in disclosure­s made to the Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblo­wer Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. The redacted versions received by Congress were obtained by a consortium of news organizati­ons, including The Associated Press.

The trove of documents shows that in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Facebook carefully investigat­ed how its platforms spread misinforma­tion about lifesaving vaccines. They also reveal rank-and-file employees regularly suggested solutions for countering anti-vaccine content on the site, to no avail. The Wall Street Journal reported on some of Facebook’s efforts to deal with antivaccin­e comments last month.

Facebook’s response raises questions about whether the company prioritize­d controvers­y and division over the health of its users.

“These people are selling fear and outrage,” said Roger Mcnamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook who is now a vocal critic. “It is not a fluke. It is a business model.”

Typically, Facebook ranks posts by engagement — the total number of likes, dislikes, comments, and reshares. That ranking scheme may work well for innocuous subjects like recipes, dog photos, or the latest viral singalong. But Facebook’s own documents show that when it comes to divisive public health issues like vaccines, engagement-based ranking only emphasizes polarizati­on, disagreeme­nt, and doubt.

To study ways to reduce vaccine misinforma­tion, Facebook researcher­s changed how posts are ranked for more than 6,000 users in the U.S., Mexico, Brazil, and the Philippine­s.

Instead of seeing posts about vaccines that were chosen based on their popularity, these users saw posts selected for their trustworth­iness.

The results were striking: a nearly 12% decrease in content that made claims debunked by fact-checkers and an 8% increase in content from authoritat­ive public health organizati­ons such as the WHO or U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Those users also had a 7% decrease in negative interactio­ns on the site.

Employees at the company reacted to the study with exuberance, according to internal exchanges included in the whistleblo­wer’s documents.

“Is there any reason we wouldn’t do this?” one Facebook employee wrote in response to an internal memo outlining how the platform could rein in anti-vaccine content.

Facebook said it did implement many of the study’s findings — but not for another month, a delay that came at a pivotal stage of the global vaccine rollout.

 ?? Loic Venance / Getty Images ?? In this file photo, the logo of the online social media and social networking service Facebook is seen.
Loic Venance / Getty Images In this file photo, the logo of the online social media and social networking service Facebook is seen.

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