A coalition of a dozen U.S. state attorneys general is calling on Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to implement aggressive measures against anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, lies and alarmist disinformation and misinformation proliferating on their platforms, undermining public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines.
In a letter (PDF) issued last week, the attorney general also accused Facebook of accommodating and profiting from prominent “anti-vaxxers” and COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation, all the while flagging “pro-vaccine pages and content in ways that have undermined pro-vaccine public education efforts.”
“Given ‘anti-vaxxers’ reliance on your platforms, you are uniquely positioned to prevent the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of millions of Americans in our states and that will prolong our road to recovery,” reads the letter from Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, which was signed by the Democratic attorneys general of Delaware, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.
The letter was released as Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai were set to testify before a joint hearing on social media’s central role in promoting extremism and disinformation, hosted by the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee and Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives on March 25, 2021.
In a memo (PDF) issued before the hearing, Frank Pallone, Jr., the Democratic chairperson of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, wrote:
Facebook, Google, and Twitter have long come under fire for their role in the dissemination and amplification of misinformation and extremist content. For instance, since the beginning of the coronavirus disease of 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, all three platforms have spread substantial amounts of misinformation about COVID-19. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation regarding the severity of the virus and the effectiveness of alleged cures for COVID-19 was widespread. More recently, COVID-19 disinformation has misrepresented the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.
According to the memo, the disinformation and extremist content proliferating on social media platforms “has greatly intensified an already deadly public health crisis.”
Threat to global public health
The attorneys general accused Zuckerberg and Dorsey of allowing “a small group of individuals” to use Facebook and Twitter to spread the kind of costly COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation that has “increased vaccine hesitancy, which will slow economic recovery and, more importantly, ultimately cause even more unnecessary deaths.” They wrote:
As safe and effective vaccines become available, the end of this pandemic is in sight. This end, however, depends on the widespread acceptance of these vaccines as safe and effective. Unfortunately, misinformation disseminated via your platforms has increased vaccine hesitancy, which will slow economic recovery and, more importantly, ultimately cause even more unnecessary deaths. A small group of individuals use your platforms to downplay the dangers of COVID-19 and spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines. These individuals lack medical expertise and are often motivated by financial interests.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) identified vaccine hesitancy as as one of the ten threats to global public health, alongside weak primary health care systems, HIV, “air pollution and climate change” and noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, which “are collectively responsible for over 70% of all deaths worldwide, or 41 million people.”
COVID-19 vaccines hesitancy undermines local and global efforts to overcome the deadly pandemic.
According to data from the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering (JHU CSSE), as of March 31, 2021, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of 2,805,972) people globally. The United States led the list of countries with the most fatalities with more than 550,992 deaths, followed by Brazil (37,646), Mexico (202,633) and India (162,468). According to the data, the U.S. had the most number of COVID-19 cases at more than 30m. Globally, there were more than 128 million cases.
“Facebook and Twitter should be doing everything they can to help our nation fight the COVID-19 pandemic that has devastated our communities and claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocent people,” said Attorney General Maura Healey of Massachusetts. “Instead, they are failing to prevent the spread of deadly lies from anti-vaxxers and undermining our efforts to effectively fight this virus. We call on Facebook and Twitter to immediately to do the right thing, follow their own guidelines, and stop amplifying dangerous disinformation on their platforms.”
In their letter, the attorneys general cited data from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), noting that “so-called ‘anti-vaxxer’ accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers.” The CCDH, an international non-profit that “seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation,” has offices in London and Washington DC. In the past several years, the CCDH has repeatedly highlighted anti-vaxxer’s misinformation and hate campaigns thriving on Facebook and other far-reaching social media platforms.
Melinda Wenner Moyer is an author and award-winning science journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, the journal Nature, Mother Jones, Washington Post, O: The Oprah Magazine, to name a few prominent publications. According to Moyer, anti-vaxxers are “people who are doggedly sharing misinformation and trying to convince other people that vaccines aren’t safe.” Moyer’s eye-opening 2018 article, “Anti-Vaccine Activists Have Taken Vaccine Science Hostage,” published in The New York Times, is worth reading now as it was then.
In his memo, Rep. Pallone, the Democratic chairperson of the House Committee on Energy, noted that social medial platforms “often ramp up their efforts against misinformation and extremist content in response to social and political pressure” even in the face of studies showing that “misinformation and extremist content continue to thrive on these platforms.”
In October, Facebook launched a global policy against “ads discouraging people from getting vaccinated.” The company loudly claimed:
We don’t want these ads on our platform. Our goal is to help messages about the safety and efficacy of vaccines reach a broad group of people, while prohibiting ads with misinformation that could harm public health efforts.
Less than a day after the announcement, Facebook was “still broadcasting anti-vaxx adverts worth thousands of dollars,” the CCDH reported, adding:
An examination of Facebook’s own Ads Library shows that three anti-vaccination adverts with a value of more than $10,000 are still live on the platform. The adverts claim that flu shots are ineffective in reducing hospital admissions, and that the aluminum use in some vaccines is unsafe.
A report (PDF) released by the CCDH and Anti-Vax Watch last week found that only 12 individuals or organizations were responsible for 65% of content spreading anti-vaccine venom on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube and Twitter while violating these platforms’ content policies. Furthermore, the toxic content reached more than 59 million people on the platforms.
In mid-March, The Washington Post reported that a recent behind-the-scenes study of vaccine hesitancy conducted by Facebook’s data scientists had found that “10 out of the 638 population segments” studied “contained 50 percent of all vaccine hesitancy content on the platform. And in the population segment with the most vaccine hesitancy, just 111 users contributed half of all vaccine hesitant content… The research effort also discovered early evidence of significant overlap between communities that are skeptical of vaccines and those affiliated with QAnon, a sprawling set of baseless claims that has radicalized its followers and been associated with violent crimes, according to the documents.”
Facebook is unlikely to effectively stop anti-vaccination adverts and hate-inspired content on its platform. Doing so would weaken the social media’s central place at the heart of burgeoning “surveillance capitalism” in our increasingly digital society.
Shoshana Zuboff, professor emeritus of Harvard Business School and author of the eye-opening book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” is largely credited with inventing the term surveillance capitalism. Zuboff has also identified Google as the “pioneer” of surveillance capitalism, arguing that the tech behemoth was “to surveillance capitalism what General Motors was to managerial capitalism.”
Thirty-eight advocacy organizations recently called for a ban on “surveillance advertising”, which is “the core profit-driver for gatekeepers like Facebook and Google, as well as adtech middlemen”. They further described surveillance advertising as “the practice of extensively tracking and profiling individuals and groups, and then microtargeting ads at them based on their behavioral history, relationships, and identity.”
In 2018, we learned that Facebook had allowed Cambridge Analytica, a now-defunct British consulting firm, to illegally harvest and use of the personal data of tens of millions of its users’ without consent. Chris Wylie, a former employee of Cambridge Analytica who exposed the scandal, revealed that the Trump-affiliated company had used the illegally acquired data to explore Facebook users’ “mental vulnerabilities” and build profiling algorithms. The company’s core work, he claimed, focused on “creating a web of disinformation online so people start going down the rabbit hole of clicking on blogs, websites etc. that make them think things are happening that may not be.”
In 2019, Facebook confirmed the argument that it allowed Cambridge Analytica to “harvest personal information from tens of millions of Facebook users for voter profiling and targeting” on behalf of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign by paying a $5 billion fine to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Jennifer Cobbe, the co-ordinator of Cambridge University’s Trustworthy Technologies strategic research initiative, has described surveillance capitalism as the “large-scale surveillance and modification of human behaviour for profit”. According to Cobbe:
Surveillance capitalism monetises our lives for their profit, turning everything that we do into data points to be packaged together as a profile describing us in great detail. Access to that data profile is sold on the advertising market. But it isn’t just access to our data profile that is being sold – it’s access to the powerful behavioural modification tools developed by these corporations, to their knowledge about our psychological vulnerabilities, honed through experimentation over many years. In effect, through their pervasive surveillance apparatus they build up intricate knowledge of the daily lives and behaviours of hundreds of millions of people and then charge other companies to use this knowledge against us for their benefit.
Facebook’s business model is based on mass collection, analysis and monetization of its users’ personal data.
In his memo (PDF) issued before Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Pichai testified before U.S. lawmakers this week, Frank Pallone, Jr., the Democratic chairperson of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, state that, since Facebook, Twitter and Google “operate some of the largest and most influential online social media platforms reaching billions of users across the globe,” they are “among the largest platforms for the dissemination of misinformation and extremist content. These platforms maximize their reach – and advertising dollars – by using algorithms or other technologies to promote content and make content recommendations that increase user engagement. Users of these platforms often engage more with questionable or provocative content, thus the algorithms often elevate or amplify disinformation and extremist content. Facebook, Google, and Twitter also have access to vast swaths of user data that allows them to microtarget content to users who would be more susceptible to disinformation and extremist content.”
The attorneys general letter stated that individual anti-vaxxers and groups “spreading falsehoods and misleading Americans about the safety of coronavirus vaccines are threatening the health of our communities, slowing progress in getting our residents protected from the virus, and undermining economic recovery in our states.” The letter further stated that anti-vaxxers on Facebook and other social media platforms were “using social media platforms to target people of color and Black Americans specifically, members of communities who have suffered the worst health impacts of the virus and whose vaccination rates are lagging.”
In the United States, COVID-19 has disproportionately impacted African Americans and BIPOC (Black people, Indigenous people and People of Color) groups.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s regularly-updated analysis of the “risk for COVID-19 Infection, hospitalization, and death by race/ethnicity,” as of March 12:
- non-Hispanic Black or African Americans were 1.1 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 2.9 times more times to be hospitalized with COVID-19, and 1.9 times more likely to die of COVID-19, than white Americans.
- non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native persons were 1.7 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 3.7 times more times to be hospitalized with COVID-19, and 2.4 times more likely to die of COVID-19, than white Americans.
- non-Hispanic Asian persons were 0.7 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 1.0 times more times to be hospitalized with COVID-19, and 1.0 times more likely to die of COVID-19, than white Americans.
- Hispanic or Latino persons were 1.3 times more likely to contract COVID-19, 3.1 times more times to be hospitalized with COVID-19, and 2.3 times more likely to die of COVID-19, than white Americans.
An analysis published in January by the Kaiser Health News (KHN), a national newsroom dedicated ton in-depth journalism on health issues, found that Black Americans were “still receiving covid vaccinations at dramatically lower rates than white Americans” seven weeks after the U.S. had ramped up its COVID-19 vaccine rollout and, in some cases, states had expanded vaccine eligibility beyond groups on the front lines.
According to the analysis entitled, “As Vaccine Rollout Expands, Black Americans Still Left Behind“:
Almost seven weeks into the vaccine rollout, states have expanded eligibility beyond front-line health care workers to more of the public – in some states to more older adults, in others to essential workers such as teachers. But new data shows that vaccination rates for Black Americans have not caught up to those of white Americans.
Seven more states published the demographics of residents who have been vaccinated after KHN released an analysis of 16 states two weeks ago, bringing the total to 23 states with available data. In all 23 states, data shows, white residents are being vaccinated at higher rates than Black residents, often at double the rate – or even higher. The disparities haven’t significantly changed with an additional two weeks of vaccinations.
According to The Markup, “several factors,” including “medical mistrust due to a history of discrimination and a lack of vaccination sites in Black neighborhoods, as well as gaps in reliable access to information on the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and how and where to get them,” explain this discrepancy.
During the era of slavery, white slave owners struggled to recognize the humanity of Blacks stolen from Africa. As the 1790s yellow fever epidemic threatened to decimate the entire Black population of Philadelphia, “physician John Lining promoted the idea that only white people were susceptible, reinforcing beliefs that newly arriving enslaved Africans had a supernatural inoculation to deadly diseases,” writes Brandi Collins-Dexter, a senior campaign director at Color Of Change and visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center, in the report, “Canaries in the Coal: COVID-19 Misinformation and Black Communities” (pdf), released by The Shorenstein Center in June, 2020. According Collins-Dexter:
This myth of immunity was also part of what helped drive the mass enslavement of Africans, after indigenous communities were ravaged by smallpox.
Fast-forward to 2020 and the global COVID-19 pandemic. Collins-Dexter’s study “tracked how COVID-19 was being discussed in Black online communities”. It uncovered COVID-19 conspiracies and misinformation that appeared to be “targeted directly at the community by outsiders, while some has grown up organically within specific Black communities.” According to the study:
The Black community online is awash in medical misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic. Even as Black people are disproportionately dying from the virus due to systemic racism, harmful inaccuracies about how to keep from contracting COVID-19, how to treat it, and where it comes from are metastasizing in Black online spaces, putting people at even greater risk.
Importantly, Collins-Dexter’s study exposed “how historical oppression, medical mistrust, and healthcare redlining combined with failures by internet platforms and media underreporting have left the Black community with an information vacuum now being filled by dangerous false narratives online. This leaves individuals at great personal risk, and imperils democracy by harming Black voters’ ability to be informed on matters of the highest national importance.”
But its not just the usual anti-vaxxer movement that’s pushing the burgeoning COVID-19 vaccine disinformation scourge towards a full-blown global crisis.
In 2015, The New York Times published an opinion piece discussing the “growing globalization of white nationalism“, the era of “white supremacists without borders”. Then Donald Trump won the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Throughout his divisive four-year presidency, Trump used social media platforms, particularly Twitter, his preferred political megaphone, to spread divisive misinformation and amplify the hate and dangerous conspiracy theories spread on these platforms by white nationalists, far-right extremists, white supremacists and QAnon adherents.
After losing the November 2020 presidential election, Trump used Twitter, Facebook and other leading social media platforms to spread violence-inciting misinformation and baseless conspiracy theories about widespread election fraud during the election. Remember the “Stop the Steal” campaign? It fueled the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol by pro-Trump supporters.
The siege directly caused six deaths, including that of Brian D. Sicknick, a United States Capitol Police (USCP) officer, who lost his life after getting “injured while physically engaging with protesters,” according to a police statement. A pro-Trump thug reportedly attacked him with a fire extinguisher.
Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that far-right extremists have now moved from the infamous “Stop the Steal” campaign and joined the anti-vaccination movement. They are even using stats from the federal Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) to undermine the U.S. government and diminish the public’s confidence in COVID-19 vaccines. Co-sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and agencies of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), VAERS is “a national early warning system to detect possible safety problems in U.S. licensed vaccines.” It’s an important source of helpful COVID-19 vaccine evidence for journalists, scientists, medical professionals, and ordinary people.
According to the NYT:
Adherents of far-right groups who cluster online have turned repeatedly to one particular website in recent weeks – the federal database showing deaths and adverse reactions nationwide among people who have received Covid-19 vaccinations.
Although negative reactions have been relatively rare, the numbers are used by many extremist groups to try to bolster a rash of false and alarmist disinformation in articles and videos with titles like “Covid-19 Vaccines Are Weapons of Mass Destruction – and Could Wipe out the Human Race” or “Doctors and Nurses Giving the Covid-19 Vaccine Will be Tried as War Criminals.”
If the so-called Stop the Steal movement appeared to be chasing a lost cause once President Biden was inaugurated, its supporters among extremist organizations are now adopting a new agenda from the anti-vaccination campaign to try to undermine the government.
According to the report, the the baseless “apocalyptic warnings” about the supposed dangers of COVID-19 vaccine now being propagated by the alliance of anti-vaxxers and far-right extremists “feed into the far-right narrative that the government cannot be trusted, the sentiment also at the root of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. The more vaccine opponents succeed in preventing or at least delaying herd immunity, experts noted, the longer it will take for life to return to normal and that will further undermine faith in the government and its institutions.”
Strategy against COVID-19 vaccine disinformation
A report (PDF) issued by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security last week proposes a national strategy to combat what is arguably now a COVID-19 vaccine disinformation crisis. Noting the “damage already done by misinformation and disinformation,” the report, entitled, National Priorities to Combat Misinformation and Disinformation for COVID-19 and Future Public Health Threats: A Call for a National Strategy sees “an urgent national security and public health need to ensure effective management of public health misinformation and disinformation by increasing accessibility of correct information and reducing the reach of false information through a combination of efforts.” It reads:
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that health-related misinformation and disinformation can dangerously undermine the response to a public health crisis. Contradictory messaging and active subversion have reduced trust in public health responders, increased belief in false medical cures, and politicized public health measures aimed at curbing transmission of the disease. Setbacks in the COVID-19 response have highlighted that health-related misinformation or disinformation can lead to more infections, deaths, disruption, and disorganization of the effort. The public health response and communication environment in the United States have been disrupted by significant distrust in government, exacerbated by confusing and conflicting messages from leaders. As a result, information voids have developed, easily filled by false or misleading information and directly targeted by perpetrators of disinformation. Taken together, the spread and consequence of public health misinformation and disinformation can lead to a range of outcomes that have national security implications and require effective response…
The development of a national strategy to prevent and respond to COVID-19 and future public health misinformation and disinformation is an important first step in the establishment of a solution set to this threat.
The report proposes the following four pillars in the development of a national strategy against the burgeoning COVID-19 vaccine disinformation crisis:
- Pillar 1: Intervene against false and damaging content as well as the sources propagating it
- Pillar 1: Intervene against false and damaging content as well as the sources propagating it
- Pillar 2: Promote and ensure the abundant presence and dissemination of factual information
- Pillar 3: Increase the public’s resilience to misinformation and disinformation
- Pillar 4: Ensure a whole-of-nation response through multisector and multiagency collaboration
The Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security report and its proposed national strategy for the COVID-19 vaccine disinformation crisis is available HERE.
Below is the full text of the 12 U.S. attorneys general letter, via the office of Connecticut Attorney General William Tong
Dear Messrs. Dorsey and Zuckerberg:
As Attorneys General committed to protecting the safety and well-being of the residents of our states, we write to express our concern about the use of your platforms to spread fraudulent information about coronavirus vaccines and to seek your cooperation in curtailing the dissemination of such information. The people and groups spreading falsehoods and misleading Americans about the safety of coronavirus vaccines are threatening the health of our communities, slowing progress in getting our residents protected from the virus, and undermining economic recovery in our states.
As safe and effective vaccines become available, the end of this pandemic is in sight. This end, however, depends on the widespread acceptance of these vaccines as safe and effective. Unfortunately, misinformation disseminated via your platforms has increased vaccine hesitancy, which will slow economic recovery and, more importantly, ultimately cause even more unnecessary deaths. A small group of individuals use your platforms to downplay the dangers of COVID-19 and spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines. These individuals lack medical expertise and are often motivated by financial interests. According to a recent report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, so-called “anti-vaxxer” accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers. “Anti-vaxxers” are using social media platforms to target people of color and Black Americans specifically, members of communities who have suffered the worst health impacts of the virus and whose vaccination rates are lagging.
Given “anti-vaxxers’” reliance on your platforms, you are uniquely positioned to prevent the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of millions of Americans in our states and that will prolong our road to recovery.
The updated community guidelines you have established to prevent the spread of vaccine misinformation appear to be a step in the right direction. However, it is apparent that Facebook has not taken sufficient action to identify violations and enforce these guidelines by removing and labelling misinformation and banning repeat offenders. As a result, anti-vaccine misinformation continues to spread on your platforms, in violation of your community standards.
- Twitter and Facebook have yet to remove from all their platforms the accounts of prominent “anti-vaxxers” who have repeatedly violated the companies’ terms of service. Digital media research groups estimate that as of March 10, 12 “anti-vaxxers’” personal accounts and their associated organizations, groups and websites are responsible for 65% of public anti-vaccine content on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
- Facebook has failed to consistently apply misinformation labels and popups on Facebook pages and groups that discuss vaccines or COVID-19. For example, the company neglected to apply warning labels on dozens of Facebook groups that “anti-vaxxer” Larry Cook created for his followers. At the same time, the company has mistakenly flagged pro-vaccine pages and content in ways that have undermined pro-vaccine public education efforts.
- Facebook has allowed anti-vaxxers to skirt its policy of removing misinformation that health experts have debunked, by failing to prevent them from using video and streaming tools like Facebook Live and sites like Bitchute, Rumble, and Brighteon to evade detection.
We call on you to take immediate steps to fully enforce your companies’ guidelines against vaccine misinformation. By effectively rooting out fraudulent information about coronavirus vaccines, you can prevent needless illness and death and hasten our road to recovery.
Selected further reading:
Brandi Collins-Dexter. Shorenstein Center, June 2020
Corin Faife, Jon Keegan and Colin Lecher. The Markup, February 16, 2021
Imran Ahmed. Center for Countering Digital Hate, March 24, 2021
Hannah Recht and Lauren Weber. Kaiser Health News, January 29, 2021
Tara Kirk Sell, Divya Hosangadi, Elizabeth Smith, Marc Trotochaud, Prarthana Vasudevan, Gigi Kwik Gronvall, Yonaira Rivera, Jeannette Sutton, Alex Ruiz and Anita Cicero. Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, March 2021
Liz Hamel, Ashley Kirzinger, Lunna Lopes, Audrey Kearney, Grace Sparks, and Mollyann Brodie. The Kaiser Family Foundation, January 22, 2021
Bill Hanage and Marc Lipsitch. Scientific American, February 2020
Gordon Pennycook, Ziv Epstein, Mohsen Mosleh, Antonio A. Arechar, Dean Eckles & David G. Rand. Nature, March 17, 2021
The Canadian Progressive obtained the image accompanying this article from the official archived Flickr account of the Trump White House. The photo, taken by Joiyce N. Boghosian, is in the public domain. We cropped and resized the image, as permitted under the license, to fit our publication’s style and taste.