Lies, damn lies, and Facebook's statistics

Last Friday, President Biden was asked if he had a message for Facebook on the impact of vaccine misinformation on its platform. 

"They're killing people," Biden replied. 

Facebook was not happy. The next day, Facebook released a blog post defending its efforts on vaccines and attacking the Biden administration's response to the COVID epidemic. It was a masterclass in statistical manipulation. 

The data shows that 85% of Facebook users in the US have been or want to be vaccinated against COVID-19. President Biden’s goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4. Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed.

This is a classic case of comparing apples and oranges. Facebook is comparing Biden's goal of actually vaccinating 70% of American adults by July 4 with the number of people on Facebook who, in a survey, say they want to be vaccinated

In the blog post, Facebook claimed higher vaccination rates in other countries proved that Facebook was not the problem. 

We employed similar tactics in the UK and Canada, which have similar rates of Facebook usage to the US, and those countries have achieved more than 70% vaccination of eligible populations. 

This is cherry-picking data. Facebook ignores that other countries with high Facebook usage, like Brazil, have low rates of vaccination and vaccine acceptance. 

Facebook also emphasized how many people on its platform viewed accurate information about COVID-19 and vaccines. 

Since the pandemic began, more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook. 

It's unclear what this statistic means because Facebook has been using the "2 billion people" statistic since April 2020, well before vaccines were available. Regardless, it is incomplete information. Facebook did not disclose how many people have viewed misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines and, without that information, it is impossible to evaluate this data point. 

Ultimately, this focus on statistics misses the point. The question is not how many people "view" accurate or inaccurate information about vaccines on Facebook. If someone is already vaccinated and views accurate information on vaccines on Facebook, that isn't particularly relevant. Conversely, if someone is already determined never to get a COVID vaccine, viewing vaccine misinformation on Facebook doesn't create a lot of additional harm. (Although it may make someone even less likely to change their mind.) 

On Monday, Biden softened his position, saying that he believed misinformation on Facebook, not Facebook itself, is killing people. “My hope is, that Facebook instead of taking it personally that somehow I’m saying Facebook is killing people, that they would do something about the misinformation,” Biden said.

How Facebook's algorithm radicalizes vaccine skeptics

The real question is how are people influenced by the information about vaccines they are exposed to on Facebook. Specifically, how does the Facebook algorithm take someone who may have picked up doubts about COVID vaccines from any one of a variety of sources — Fox News, a friend, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) — and radicalize them into someone who will never get vaccinated. A new report from NewsGuard, which is partnering with the World Health Organization to study vaccine misinformation on Facebook, provides some answers. 

According to NewsGuard, Facebook is "still programming its algorithms to send users down rabbit holes of anti-vax propaganda." Specifically, "Facebook continues to recommend broad networks of anti-vaccine and health misinformation pages to users." 

On July 20, a NewsGuard analyst "began by ‘liking’ a single anti-vaccine Facebook page." Facebook then "suggested several more anti-vaccine pages." After liking a few of those pages "the analyst was recommended dozens of pages publishing vaccine and COVID-19 misinformation, many with thousands of followers." The entire process took less than 10 minutes. 

For example, after clicking "Like" on a vaccine misinformation page called "Vaccinate This," the analyst was presented with a dropdown menu of other vaccine misinformation pages, including "Vaccine Free" and "Evidence of Harm."

Facebook has pledged to remove pages that repeatedly post vaccine misinformation. But the NewsGuard study found that pages it first identified months ago as key sources of vaccine misinformation are not only still on the platform but "remain active and growing – and are visible to Facebook’s billions of users unaccompanied by any warnings about their reliability." One page, "flagged in September 2020, has since published false claims that COVID-19 vaccines are a plan to reduce the world’s population and that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine is 99% graphene oxide, among others."

Instagram accounts pushing vaccine misinformation continue to grow

In December 2020, Popular Information identified multiple Facebook pages and Instagram accounts where vaccine misinformation ran rampant. Days prior to that report, Facebook and Instagram had announced a new policy banning false claims about the efficacy and safety of the vaccines.

Seven months later, Popular Information has identified accounts on Instagram where dangerous vaccine misinformation continues to spread. These accounts, which have tens of thousands of followers, have only grown over the last few months. 

Stand for Health Freedom, a nonprofit opposed to vaccination requirements, runs an Instagram account with at least 58.2k followers. In the last 30 days, the account has gained 1,620 new followers, averaging about 54 new followers per day, according to social media analytics firm Social Blade.

On July 15, the account created a post accusing the CDC of employing “bullying tactics and forceful attempts to push” vaccines onto children. It describes the vaccines as “dangerous and risky products on children” and falsely claims that children “receive no benefit, only potential life-threatening harm.” It also adds, without evidence, that “previously-healthy children are dying” due to the vaccines.

In another post, Stand for Health Freedom claims to have “solid evidence that the official COVID numbers being reported are not accurate” and that “these numbers have been skewed to incite fear.”

On July 9, the organization encouraged its followers to support a bill that would require COVID-19 vaccines to remain voluntary. It falsely alleges that “much of the population is not at risk from harm from COVID but could easily experience harm from a fast-tracked, experimental V.” Notably, throughout the caption, it refers to the vaccine as “V”–– an attempt at circumventing Facebook’s efforts to use artificial intelligence to identify vaccine misinformation.

Popular Information observed that other accounts have adopted this tactic. Insta_ashleyeverly, an account with at least 88.5k followers, recently created a post on the “adverse event of the C19 V.” The report, which is screenshotted, claims to track the “total number of deaths for COVID-19 vaccines.”

According to Social Blade, Insta_ashleyeverly has garnered at least 2,000 new followers in the last 30 days.

There is content still on Instagram that has been removed on Youtube and Facebook. On July 7, Dr. Dale Brown, a chiropractor who runs an Instagram account with at least 28.1k followers, falsely suggested in a video post that the vaccine is not safe. Brown claims that studies that found COVID-19 vaccines to be safe are “bogus and a lie and...can’t be trusted.” According to Brown, the video was removed by YouTube. Meanwhile, on Instagram, it has garnered over 6,000 views.

This was also the case with The Weston A. Price Foundation, a nonprofit “focused on wise traditions in food, farming and the healing arts.” On July 14, it created a visual post that read “We have no safety data on what it does once it’s injected.” The quote is from a Weston A. Price’s podcast episode. 

“Where are we headed with this mass push for injections?” read the first line of the caption. The organization notes that while the podcast episode was removed from YouTube, users can still access it through a link in its Instagram bio. 

The Weston A. Price Foundation Instagram account has 151k followers. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.