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Despite new policy, vaccine misinformation is spreading on Facebook and Instagram
On Sunday, semi-trucks filled with millions of doses of a highly-effective COVID vaccine rolled out of a Pfizer facility in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The vaccine, jointly developed by Pfizer and BioNTech, will begin arriving at hospitals and other facilities on Monday. Healthcare workers and nursing home residents will be among the first to be vaccinated.
It is a rare moment of hope in a year of despair. The shots are desperately needed. In the last week, an average of 2,379 Americans died each day from COVID. Over 100,000 Americans are currently hospitalized with the virus.
But, in certain corners of Facebook and Instagram, the delivery of the vaccine is the beginning of a dystopian nightmare. Users are told the vaccines could "cause irreversible genetic damage," contain "brain-eating nanobots," and represent "the rollout of a total surveillance state where [the government] can penetrate deep within your body and see what’s going on." These false claims continue to spread on Facebook and Instagram despite a new policy, announced December 3, that bans "false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines." Specifically, Facebook pledged to "remove false claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips, or anything else that isn’t on the official vaccine ingredient list."
Right now, demand for the vaccine vastly outstrips supply. But in the coming months that will change. The biggest benefits of vaccination accrue when enough people are immunized that the population achieves "herd immunity" and the virus peters out. So the challenge becomes convincing enough people that the vaccinations are safe.
This is a top concern of Anthony Fauci, the nation's leading infectious disease expert, because it could needlessly extend the length of the pandemic. "My primary biggest fear is that a substantial proportion of the people will be hesitant to get vaccinated. I think there are going to be many people who don't want to get vaccinated right away," Fauci told The Daily Beast. Fauci is even concerned that a significant number of healthcare workers, who will receive priority access, may decline the vaccine.
Much of the hesitancy around COVID vaccines are based on misinformation about their safety — misinformation that continues to spread widely on Facebook and Instagram. For example, a December 11 post on the Children's Health Defense Instagram page says that vaccine manufacturers use "human fetal cells and adult human tumor cells in vaccines" and that "vaccine recipients might later develop cancer." The post then encourages people to use that information to evaluate the "safety and efficacy of Pfizer’s COVID vaccine." Pfizer, however, is an mRNA vaccine. It is developed synthetically and does not use fetal or adult cells. And, there is no evidence that any current vaccine causes cancer.
The post was not removed. Instead, it quickly garnered 4,860 likes, pushing it to the top of the Instagram feed of the Children's Health Defense's 143,000 followers.
Children's Health Defense is not an obscure organization. It was founded by Robert Kennedy Jr. and is one of the nation's most prominent sources of vaccine misinformation. The group, initially called the World Mercury Project, accounted for a large percentage of anti-vaccine Facebook ads, before Facebook banned the practice. If Facebook is not enforcing its new policy against Children's Health Defense, is it enforcing it at all?
In its December 3 announcement, Facebook said it "will not be able to start enforcing these policies overnight." But why not? We are in the middle of a public health crisis that vaccine misinformation is threatening to make worse. Facebook had $7.8 billion in after-tax profits in the third quarter, up 29% from 2019. COVID vaccines will become available to some Americans starting Monday. Further delay could be deadly.
“Earlier this month we began removing false claims about COVID-19 vaccines and as facts about the vaccine continue to evolve, we will regularly update the claims we remove. This is a continued application of our policy to remove misinformation that leads to imminent physical harm. As with all of our Community Standards, any Pages and accounts that repeatedly break these rules will be removed from the platform,” Facebook said in a statement to Popular Information.
A world without truth
With more than 1.5 million followers, WorldTruth.TV is one of the largest super-spreaders of misinformation on Facebook. The page regularly publishes political and health conspiracies.
On December 4, WorldTruth.TV shared an article with the headline “Experts Warn mRNA Vaccines Could Cause Irreversible Genetic Damage.” In the article, the author falsely suggests that mRNA vaccines will alter genetic material.
This claim, however, has been widely debunked — mRNA vaccines cannot alter your DNA. “Though both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines contain synthetic genetic material, they do not genetically modify humans receiving them,” according to a Reuters fact check.
Despite this, WorldTruth.TV shared this link an additional six times over the past week. None were removed, despite the clear violation of Facebook’s COVID vaccine policy. The sole context provided is an information label represented by a tiny "i" symbol. That symbol, when clicked on, reveals that “Independent fact-checkers say multiple posts from WorldTruth.TV are false.”
Other false posts from WorldTruth.TV that remain on Facebook include “Brain Eating Nanobots Being Put in Vaccines Says Whistleblower,” “Wearing A Mask Offers Little If Any Protection From Infection,” and “Treason: QAnon Exposes Obama/Hillary 16-year Coup D’Etat.”
On December 5, InnovativeParentingNJ, an anti-vaccination account with more than 2,600 followers, shared an image that featured the headline “Head of Pfizer Research: Covid Vaccine is Female Sterilization.” This claim, reports Politifact and others, is not true. According to Facebook’s new policy, the post should be removed. But this did not happen. Instead, it was blurred and displayed a label that read “False Information.” Users can view the post with a single click.
Another Instagram account, exposing_the_truth2day, recently shared an infographic titled the “COVID-19 roadmap.” It stated that “new DNA altering vaccines will create genetically modified humans that can be bioengineered for obedience and sterility.” The account, which has over 18,600 followers, regularly publishes misinformation. Just yesterday, the account published a conspiracy video and falsely stated in the caption that “These mandatory vaccines contain experimental genetically modified DNA-editing substances that will permanently modify the human organism and create a new generation of GMO humans.” It was viewed at least 1,700 times.
Streaming deadly misinformation
On December 4, Sayer Ji, founder of the pseudoscientific health site GreenMedInfo, published a livestream on his Facebook page with Dr. Joel Bohemier discussing how the upcoming vaccine will allow the government to track people. The stream was shared on GreenMedInfo’s page, which has more than 540,000 followers.
During the stream, the two suggested that the vaccine will contain ingredients — “tracking chips you can call them” states Ji — that will contribute to “the roll out of a total surveillance state where they can penetrate deep within your body and see what’s going on.” This is false — tracking chips are not being injected into people.
Bohemier and Ji go on to falsely link vaccination to increasing the likelihood of autism and misleadingly assert that vaccines are turning humans into “genetically modified organisms.” By the end of the hour-long stream, the two encourage people to deliberately walk into stores and restaurants without masks as a form of “nonviolent resistance.”
The stream, viewed at least 11,000 times, was not removed by Facebook.
On Instagram, GreenMedInfo and Ji spread unsubstantiated claims about COVID with even greater frequency, regularly posting about vaccines, the ineffectiveness of masks, and the pandemic being fake. Together, GreenMedInfo and Ji’s Instagram accounts have more than 106,000 followers.
Departing Facebook staffers blast overreliance on artificial intelligence
One reason that Facebook may be so ineffective in removing vaccine misinformation is an overreliance on artificial intelligence. A data scientist who recently departed Facebook worked on the team that dealt with hate speech, which is banned on Facebook. The former employee, according to a report in BuzzFeed, said that of the approximately five million pieces of hate speech posted to Facebook each day less than 5% was removed from the platform. (A Facebook representative disputed that calculation.) “It… makes it embarrassing to work here,” the employee said. The data scientist was among "at least four people involved in critical integrity work related to reducing violence and incitement, crafting policy to reduce hate speech, and tracking content that breaks Facebook’s rules" to leave the company in the past few weeks.
Another departing employee said a major issue was the company's overreliance on artificial intelligence.
AI will not save us. The implicit vision guiding most of our integrity work today is one where all human discourse is overseen by perfect, fair, omniscient robots owned by [CEO] Mark Zuckerberg. This is clearly a dystopia, but one so deeply ingrained we hardly notice it anymore.
“Our current approach to automation is not going to solve most of our integrity problems,” another data scientist said.
Popular Information asked Facebook about the role of artificial intelligence in Facebook's new vaccine policy, and how many employees are involved in enforcement. The company did not respond.