Facebook will kick out anti-vaccine misinformation. Is it too late?

Yesterday, in a blog post, Facebook pledged to remove misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. This was a meaningful change—previously, falsehoods about vaccines were downranked in its algorithm—but as is always the case with Facebook, there are caveats. Because the vaccines are new, it will likely take time to identify and remove bogus claims about them and, as CNN’s Oliver Darcy pointed out, the new rules leave “a lot of room for bad faith actors to get their points across.” Compared with rivals like TikTok and YouTube, Facebook has been slow to announce tough action against COVID-vaccine misinformation; YouTube started removing false claims about the vaccines back in October. And even that may have been too late. Bunk about COVID treatments and immunity pills has been swimming across social media for months—since long before any legitimate vaccine reached the latter stages of development.

Misinformation about vaccines, of course, long predates social media—it has circulated, in one form or another, for hundreds of years, and was supercharged in the nineties by false claims linking the triple-shot measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism in children. But social media has made matters worse. Recently, Facebook moved to take down popular accounts (as opposed to individual posts) that were prolific spreaders of misinformation about vaccines—but as NBC’s Brandy Zadrozny wrote this week, smaller Facebook groups, too, can do a lot of harm. Even with the new policy in place, it will be hard to track them all down. Neil Johnson, a researcher at George Washington University, has observed that, since the pandemic began, anti-vax sentiment has spread across innocuous-sounding online communities—groups for pet lovers, parents, yoga fans—and has likely reached more than a hundred million Facebook users. “The anti-vaccination network is all about passing on narratives, passing on stories, supporting each other, just like an insurgency,” he told Zadrozny, “and just like an insurgency, it is embedded with the mainstream civilian population.” (Anti-vaxxers in the UK have gone so far as to distribute a printed conspiracy newspaper in order to circumnavigate online fact-checkers.) First Draft, a nonprofit that counters disinformation, recently found that opposition to COVID vaccines increasingly unites disparate online conspiracy groups, from New Agers to QAnon fans; online vaccine skepticism is driven as much by mistrust of institutions’ motives as by safety concerns. And Russia has been stirring the pot. In recent months, opinion polls have shown that many Americans do not intend to get a COVID vaccine when one becomes available.

Related: Facebook’s Supreme Court starts to hear its first cases

Over the summer, on the Times’s Daily podcast, Jan Hoffman, a health reporter, noted that, even before the coronavirus appeared, vaccine skepticism spanned a cross-section of the US population—from libertarians to opponents of Big Pharma to “crunchy granola” parents who won’t have chemicals near their kids. “Vaccine skepticism has been shown to be more pronounced in African-American and Latino communities,” Hoffman continued—a legacy of the notoriously unethical syphilis study in Tuskegee, Alabama, where public-health officials conducted research on Black men for decades without offering them treatment, even after it became widely available. “If you think you have someone in mind who you think is the archetype of someone who opposes vaccines,” Hoffman said, “you absolutely do not.”

There have been COVID-specific doubts, too. “I agree with that skepticism,” Donald G. McNeil, Jr., a health reporter for the Times, said back in October, amid growing fears that Trump might rush out a vaccine to boost his re-election prospects. “If a vaccine is approved before Election Day, and it is approved by only one man—I’m Donald J. Trump and I approve this vaccine—then I’m a skeptic and I’m not going to take it.” McNeil added that he expects some angst to dissipate once a vaccine is out in the world and demonstrated to be safe; Trump’s departure from office—and replacement by a president who values science—will help matters, too. But institutional mistrust won’t go away. And Trump, who has expressed anti-vax views in the past, could easily decide to sow mistrust about Biden’s vaccine rollout among his loyal followers.

News organizations have to be clear in their vaccine coverage, and, as my colleague Shinhee Kang wrote recently, help set public expectations around a development and distribution process that has been impressively fast yet, by news-cycle standards, relatively slow. The tech platforms that have enormous power must do their part to toss out junk—not just about COVID vaccines, but across the board, especially since all misinformation swims in the same pool. Facebook’s latest announcement is welcome, but we’ll have to watch and see whether it’s properly enforced and matched by similar vigilance in other areas. As the Times reported, Facebook acted, last month, to tamp down a surge of election misinformation by prioritizing quality news over viral nonsense. Some Facebook staffers lobbied for that change to be made permanent. They were not successful.

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Other notable stories:

  • Nicholas Thompson, the editor in chief of Wired and the former editor of The New Yorker’s website, will take over as CEO of The Atlantic early next year. Thompson will lead the magazine’s digital-subscriber push, having contributed to similar strategies at Condé Nast. Michelle Ebanks, the former CEO of Essence Communications, is also joining The Atlantic’s board as an outside director. In other jobs news, Dan Le Batard, a talk-show host, is leaving ESPN to pursue an unspecified “new opportunity.” And MSNBC announced permanent replacements for Joy Reid’s weekend show: Tiffany Cross will fill Reid’s old slot on Saturdays, and Jonathan Capehart will take over on Sundays.
  • In media-union news, nearly a hundred staffers at publications owned by Meredith, including Entertainment Weekly and Shape, announced their intention to unionize, following in the footsteps of online staffers at People, another Meredith magazine, who formed a union earlier this year. Meredith management told the Daily Beast’s Maxwell Tani that it will not voluntarily recognize the efforts. Elsewhere, staffers at WAMU, an NPR affiliate in Washington, DC, voted to unionize with SAG-AFTRA; The Eagle has more. (ICYMI, Maya Binyam asked, in CJR’s new magazine, whether unions can make newsrooms more inclusive.)
  • This year, twelve news organizations sued the Small Business Administration for data showing which companies claimed federal loans under its coronavirus Paycheck Protection Program. A judge ordered SBA to release the data, and it did so this week. Thousands of media companies (including, apparently, Project Veritas) got loans; the Center for Public Integrity, which was part of the lawsuit, received $658,000. Susan Smith Richardson, CPI’s CEO, writes for CJR that in their case, “government money didn’t stop journalists from being formidable government watchdogs.”
  • Betsy Wade, the first woman to edit news at the Times, has died. She was ninety-one. Wade was also the first woman to lead the NewsGuild and, in 1974, she led a class-action gender-discrimination lawsuit against the Times. The paper settled, agreeing to hire more women and pay annuities for “delayed career advancement or denied opportunity,” though it did not grant raises or admit any legal wrongdoing.
  • This week, a federal judge refused to dismiss an antitrust lawsuit that the Las Vegas Sun brought against the Las Vegas Review-Journal; the Sun alleges that the Review-Journal, which is owned by the GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson, tried to “weaponize” a joint operating agreement between the papers to “kill” the Sun. Under the agreement, the papers merged their business, but not editorial, operations. Bloomberg Law has more. (Our piece on the Las Vegas Review-Journal details even more problems concurrent with Adelson’s arrival.)
  • In August, police in Hong Kong arrested Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy media magnate, and raided the newsroom of Apple Daily, a newspaper that he owns. On Wednesday, officials charged Lai and two executives at his company with real-estate fraud; the executives were granted bail but Lai was not, and he will now be held until at least April. (This summer, I outlined China’s crackdown on press freedom in Hong Kong for CJR.)
  • For BuzzFeed, Megha Rajagopalan and Alison Killing used interviews with former detainees, satellite imagery, and video footage to build a 3D architectural model of a detention camp for Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province. The camp, Rajagopalan and Killing write, is the size of thirteen football fields, and represents “a cog in the largest-scale detention of ethnic and religious minorities in the world since World War II.”
  • On Wednesday, Channel 13 News, in Israel, provided real-time fact-checking during a speech by Benjamin Netanyahu, the country’s prime minister. In the speech, Netanyahu blamed another party for violating a coalition agreement, but Channel 13 showed on screen that Netanyahu’s party was actually to blame. Itay Stern, of Haaretz, notes that the live fact-check was “a rare sight on Israeli TV.”
  • And Timothée Chalamet has some thoughts about journalism. Chalamet—who stars in The French Dispatch, an upcoming Wes Anderson movie that has been described as a love letter to The New Yorker—told Document that he enjoys reading Doreen St. Félix and Vinson Cunningham in that magazine, but that in general, magazines and long-form stories are “a thing of the past.” The times, he added, “are a-changin’.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.