Posts spreading health misinformation attracted as many as 3.8 billion views on Facebook in the last year, peaking during the COVID-19 pandemic, with 460 million views in April alone, found a report by activist group Avaaz. The report, in a scathing indictment of Facebook’s inability to limit the spread of misinformation, said that the company was “failing to keep people safe and informed during the pandemic”.
The global “health misinformation spreading” networks on Facebook spanned five countries – the United States of America, United Kingdom, France, Germany and Italy. One of the key findings of the report was that the top 10 websites spreading health misinformation attracted four times as many estimated views on Facebook as equivalent content from the 10 leading institutions in the world, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Avaaz acknowledged that though Facebook has taken steps to control misinformation during the pandemic such as setting up of a “Control Centre” or alerting users engaging with misinformation, it also said that Facebook’s algorithm was helping boost content from global misinformation spreading networks.
“Facebook has so far been unwilling to disclose enough information about its algorithm for researchers to determine exactly how and why misinformation content goes viral on its platform,” the report said. Facebook has said in the past that it cuts the rank of stories rated as “false”, thereby leading to a 80% in fall subsequent views. However, Avaaz said the algorithm was potentially “undermining these efforts and helping to boost content from health misinformation spreading websites at a staggering rate”.
The report found that misinformation content, though fact-checked, could escape detection by Facebook by being republished, in full or part, and translated into other languages. Many of the seemingly-independent websites and Facebook pages republished each other’s content and translated it across languages to ensure it reached the largest possible audience. Only 16% of the health misinformation analysed by Avaaz had a warning label from Facebook. Those without warnings remain online without warnings.
Experts have recently raised concerns about the dangers of health misinformation during the pandemic. For instance, in a paper published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, researchers noted that a single rumour or myth – that consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the virus – led to the deaths of approximately 800 people and hospitalisation of thousands more.
Duplicated multiples times, the Bill Gates vaccine conspiracy received over 8.4 million views
The report illustrated with an example of a single article – “Gates’ Globalist Vaccine Agenda” – which was posted by a vaccine sceptic organisation in April. The original article alone had a 3.7 million interactions on Facebook. Later, it was republished either partially or in its entirely, quoted from and linked to, on posts by many more websites. These posts accumulated over 4.7 million views in six different translations.
It appears that other websites that reposted the [Bill Gates] article or shared parts of it were able to avoid Facebook’s fact-checking process. This demonstrates that Facebook needs to improve its systems, ensuring they are more sophisticated and better able to comprehensively catch falsehoods being published on their platform.
- Misinformation around overcounting COVID deaths: Another notable example of misinformation content reaching widespread audience was one which claimed the American Medical Association was “encouraging” doctors to over-count Covid-19 deaths. This article, though it has been been fact-checked by independent organisations, has cumulatively received over 160.5 million views on Facebook.”This type of false and misleading content represents a trend Avaaz researchers are observing during this pandemic, and requires more sophisticated efforts by fact-checkers and Facebook to ensure well-designed misinformation content is detected and effectively debunked,” the report said.
- The 5G rumour: Another category of posts which attracted a high number of views were those blaming the global rollout of 5G networks for the pandemic. One article, posted by one website and reported or linked to from six others, was viewed over 13.4 million times.
Many of these networks, made up of both websites and Facebook pages, have spread vaccination and health misinformation on the social media platform for years. However, some did not appear to have had any focus on health until Feb. 2020 when they started covering the COVID-19 pandemic, the report found.
Public pages, which are accessible to any Facebook user, were the “main engines” of sharing misinformation. accounting for 43% of the total estimated views. The top 42 pages alone accounted for 800 million views.
Avaaz suggests a “two-step” solution to tackle the infodemic
- “Correct the record”: The organisation suggested that Facebook could provide all users who have seen misinformation on the platform with independently fact-checked corrections. This would, it said, decrease the belief in misinformation by an average of almost 50%.
- “Detox the algorithm”: It suggested that Facebook could transparently adjust its algorithm to ensure that it effectively downgrades known disinformation, misinformation ad well as pages, groups and websites that systematically spread misinformation.
Meanwhile, according to a BBC report, Facebook said the Avaaz report did not “reflect the steps we’ve taken”. The firm said: “We share Avaaz’s goal of limiting misinformation. Thanks to our global network of fact-checkers, from April to June, we applied warning labels to 98 million pieces of Covid-19 misinformation and removed seven million pieces of content that could lead to imminent harm. We’ve directed over two billion people to resources from health authorities and when someone tries to share a link about Covid-19, we show them a pop-up to connect them with credible health information”