We Talked To An Epidemiologist About Facebook’s COVID-19 Misinformation Crackdown

Published on February 9, 2021

Facebook announced on Monday that it will implement a new approach to combating COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation. The company clarified in a blog post that it will pair a unilateral approach to disseminating factual information about the pandemic and the vaccine with an initiative to moderate as much misinformation as it can.

The company will add to its COVID-19 information center to help its users find local resources to be able to keep safe and healthy. Similar to its approach to the U.S. Presidential Election in 2020, the COVID-19 Information Center will now provide information on where users can get vaccinated in their local areas instead of where they can vote.

The company also says it will help encourage its users to get the COVID-19 vaccine by providing factual information about what they can expect from the experience. Facebook revealed plans to expand the feature to other countries in the near future as well.

“Preventing additional long term debilitating outcomes and deaths from COVID-19 as well as returning to societal normalcy depends in large part on people’s willingness to be vaccinated,” says Dr. Katrine Wallace, an assistant professor of and epidemiologist at the University of Illinois who also runs a popular TikTok account that debunks viral COVID-19 claims. “According to two recent polls, only 51-60% of Americans are willing to get COVID-19 vaccines, which will hamper our ability to get to herd immunity,” she says.

Facebook says it will provide $120 million in advertising credits to health officials, NGO’s working to provide factual information, and UN organizations that are aiming to improve preventative education about COVID-19. The company will also bring its COVID-19 information center to Instagram in an effort to combat the spread of misinformation that circulates its other platform.

“While vaccination is a vital strategy for stopping the virus, a significant majority mistrust the safety and efficacy of a COVID-19 vaccine, particularly among Black and Latinx Americans,” says Dr. Wallace.

In an updated blog post, Facebook clarified that it will expand on its list of claims that will be removed from Facebook and Instagram regarding COVID-19 and how it spreads. The updated list of debunked facts that often circulate the platforms include suggestions that the virus was man made, misinformation about the efficacy of the vaccine, and general suggestions that vaccines cause autism. The company already has an extensive list of claims that are not allowed on its platforms, though misinformation tends to change over time and pop up in new ways.

This new approach that targets anti-vaccine rhetoric in totality represents a fresh start for Facebook, which has long been criticized for its complacency in the spread of dangerous misinformation—even before the pandemic. Just weeks before COVID-19 became a global crisis, one of the biggest news stories of early 2020 was about a boy who died after his mom received medical misinformation in anti-vaccine groups on Facebook.

“While it is unfortunate that major social media channels did not adopt COVID-19 information monitoring policy over the first year of the global pandemic, it is imperative to do so,” says Dr. Wallace. “There is a ‘co-epidemic’ of misinformation about COVID-19 and the COVID-19 vaccines that is rampant on social media and it is dangerous,” Dr. Wallace says.

As part of its expansion on its misinformation crackdown, Facebook says it will remove groups and accounts that repeatedly post vaccine related misinformation or are found to be amplifying misinformation that promotes an anti-vaccine agenda. The company says its misinformation policy will go into effect immediately. Facebook, however, did play a major role in the spread of viral misinformation in the first place—particularly within political groups that discussed the political impact of the pandemic and its relation to the economic crisis.

“The current co-epidemic of COVID-19 misinformation on social media is a risk factor for more disease and death,” Dr. Wallace says. “People will undoubtedly deem it ‘censorship’ to monitor and remove false statements, but from a public health perspective misinformation during a pandemic actually kills people,” she says. Dr. Wallace has used her TikTok account to debunk conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic, and in some cases has had to defend her decision to debunk misinformation against trolls that accuse her of being too political. It’s the misinformation, however, that was used as a political weapon throughout the 2020 Presidential Election.

“Beliefs germinate on social media and are adopted into practice based on misinformation instead of scientific evidence-based sources. These false beliefs have led to a willing disregard of public health measures (i.e. social distancing, mask-wearing, vaccines) that are enacted to keep people safe from spreading disease and becoming ill themselves,” Dr. Wallace says. When misinformation began to impact human behavior on a widespread scale, it undoubtedly contributed to the continued spread of COVID-19.

Experts have long warned of the impact that misinformation could have on the pandemic, though it’s hard to know exactly to what degree misinformation has contributed to the spread of the disease. “It is impossible to quantify the amount of sickness and death that COVID-19 misinformation has contributed to, as personal and community safety is willfully disregarded. COVID-19 is already terrible enough; The associated co-epidemic of misinformation has been absolutely enabled by social media and was wholly unnecessary,” says Dr. Wallace.

Of when Americans can expect to see some sense of normalcy, Dr. Wallace says it could be later this year. “As of 2/9/2021, we have 3.1% of the USA population fully vaccinated,” she says. “We will need 75-80% of the population vaccinated to achieve herd immunity. We are vaccinating 4.85 million doses per day on average. If the vaccination efforts successfully continue at that same pace into the second quarter of 2021, we could see the US approaching herd immunity and this normalcy by the Fall of 2021,” Dr. Wallace says.

But it won’t be easy, and Americans need to do their part to fact check the viral claims that are sure to circulate in the coming months, even with Facebook’s new, extensive misinformation policy. “Prevention measures (masks + rapid vaccine rollout) can reduce the death toll. Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) forecasts show that if mask-wearing increases to 95%, combined with the expected vaccine rollout, 66,000 lives could be saved by June 1, 2021,” Dr. Wallace says.

Julia Sachs is a former Managing Editor at Grit Daily. She covers technology, social media and disinformation. She is based in Utah and before the pandemic she liked to travel.

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