By Associated Press
“That’s a huge problem and we need to fix it,” the presentation on March 9 read.
Even worse, company employees admitted they didn’t have a handle on catching those comments. And if they did, Facebook didn’t have a policy in place to take the comments down. The free-for-all was allowing users to swarm vaccine posts from news outlets or humanitarian organizations with negative comments about vaccines.
“Our ability to detect (vaccine hesitancy) in comments is bad in English — and basically non-existent elsewhere,” another internal memo posted on March 2 said.
Los Angeles resident Derek Beres, an author and fitness instructor, sees anti-vaccine content thrive in the comments every time he promotes immunizations on his accounts on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. Last year, Beres began hosting a podcast with friends after they noticed conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and vaccines were swirling on the social media feeds of popular health and wellness influencers.
Earlier this year, when Beres posted a picture of himself receiving the COVID-19 shot, some on social media told him he would likely drop dead in six months’ time.
“The comments section is a dumpster fire for so many people,” Beres said.
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.
Some Facebook employees had an idea. While the company worked to hammer out a plan to curb all the anti-vaccine sentiment in the comments, why not disable commenting on posts altogether?
“Very interested in your proposal to remove ALL in-line comments for vaccine posts as a stopgap solution until we can sufficiently detect vaccine hesitancy in comments to refine our removal,” one Facebook employee wrote on March 2.
The suggestion went nowhere until mid-April, when Lever said the company stopped showing previews of popular comments on vaccine posts.
Instead, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced on March 15 that the company would start labeling posts about vaccines that described them as safe.
The move allowed Facebook to continue to get high engagement — and ultimately profit — off anti-vaccine comments, said Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
“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,” he said.
It’s unrealistic to expect a multi-billion-dollar company like Facebook to voluntarily change a system that has proven to be so lucrative, said Dan Brahmy, CEO of Cyabra, an Israeli tech firm that analyzes social media networks and disinformation. Brahmy said government regulations may be the only thing that could force Facebook to act.
“The reason they didn’t do it is because they didn’t have to,” Brahmy said. “If it hurts the bottom line, it’s undoable.”
Bipartisan legislation in the U.S. Senate would require social media platforms to give users the option of turning off algorithms tech companies use to organize individuals’ newsfeeds.
Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, a sponsor of the bill, asked Facebook whistleblower Haugen to describe the dangers of engagement-based ranking during her testimony before Congress earlier this month.
She said there are other ways of ranking content — for instance, by the quality of the source, or chronologically — that would serve users better. The reason Facebook won’t consider them, she said, is that they would reduce engagement.
“Facebook knows that when they pick out the content … we spend more time on their platform, they make more money,” Haugen said.
Haugen’s leaked documents also reveal that a relatively small number of Facebook’s anti-vaccine users are rewarded with big pageviews under the tech platform’s current ranking system.
Internal Facebook research presented on March 24 warned that most of the “problematic vaccine content” was coming from a handful of areas on the platform. In Facebook communities where vaccine distrust was highest, the report pegged 50% of anti-vaccine pageviews on just 111 — or .016% — of Facebook accounts.
“Top producers are mostly users serially posting (vaccine hesitancy) content to feed,” the research found.
On that same day, the Center for Countering Digital Hate published an analysis of social media posts that estimated just a dozen Facebook users were responsible for 73% of anti-vaccine posts on the site between February and March. It was a study that Facebook’s leaders in August told the public was “faulty,” despite the internal research published months before that confirmed a small number of accounts drive anti-vaccine sentiment.
Earlier this month, an AP-NORC poll found that most Americans blame social media companies, like Facebook, and their users for misinformation.
But Ahmed said Facebook shouldn’t just shoulder blame for that problem.
“Facebook has taken decisions which have led to people receiving misinformation which caused them to die,” Ahmed said. “At this point, there should be a murder investigation.”