Social media companies fail to tackle anti-vaccine misinformation

A new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Restless Development finds that tech platforms are failing to remove anti-vaccine misinformation, even when it is reported to them.

The monitoring and reporting of anti-vaccine misinformation was carried out by Youth Against Misinformation, a group of young volunteers trained and coordinated by Restless Development and the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

Of the 912 misinformation posts from anti-vaccine sources reported to social media platforms, just 5% were acted on. 2.3% of the posts were removed, 0.3% of the accounts were removed, and 2.3% of the posts were flagged as false but stayed online.

Failure to Act

How tech giants continue to defy calls to rein in vaccine misinformation
PDF / 2.84 MB

It’s frustrating that these companies are among the wealthiest and most
influential in the world, yet they still seem more concerned with the
profitability of harmful actors on their platforms than protecting the
public from their dangerous misinformation.

Youth Against Misinformation volunteer

In July, the CCDH identified 409 anti-vaccine pages across social media with a following of 58 million published in its report on The Anti-Vaxx Industry, and reported to Facebook, Twitter, and Google. Just six of those pages have been removed since the list was sent to the platforms, while the remaining pages have seen their audience continue to grow by more than one million new followers.

In June, Restless Development and CCDH released Will to Act, which first showed that youth activists were reporting misinformation about coronavirus but social media firms were failing to take action.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said:

“A Coronavirus vaccine is our best hope of a return to normality. It would be a tragedy if it was unsuccessful in eradicating this disease because of lies told to people on social media.

“While we have made enormous sacrifices to keep our society safe, social media companies are undermining that effort by failing to enforce their own policies and claims to act on dangerous misinformation. Big tech has proven that they do not care, they will not act, and they only listen when their profits are on the line.

“Government must urgently legislate to ensure these platforms take down hate and misinformation that puts lives at risk. And companies who advertise on social media can make their voice heard too, by pausing their adverts until action is taken.”  

Rosanne Palmer-White, Director of Restless Development UK, said:

“Yet again, young people have been let down by social media companies.  They continue to report dangerous Covid-19 misinformation, but continue to be ignored by these platforms. 

“It is time for social media companies to start listening to young people, take down these dangerous lies and keep their online forums free from misinformation that puts our chances of stopping coronavirus in jeopardy.”

Evidence was also found of misinformation being deliberately targeted at Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic audiences.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube all claim in their policies to remove “harmful misinformation” related to Covid-19.

Online Harms Bill.

In the UK, medics have supported the report by calling on the Government to act against social media companies which fail to remove dangerous fake news about the coronavirus and vaccines.

Best-selling author and former junior doctor, Adam Kay, Dr Ellie Cannon, Dr Phil Hammond, and former star of Embarrassing Bodies, Dr Dawn Harper have put their names to a letter to Oliver Dowden, Priti Patel, and Matt Hancock, calling on the Cabinet members to introduce legislation “to prevent dangerous lies about health and medicine being spread to millions.”

The medics have called for the Online Harms Bill to be brought before Parliament “at the earliest possible opportunity” and for it to include potential penalties for tech companies which allow “dangerous lies about health and medicine” to be viewed on their websites.

The Government had initially pledged to bring forward an Online Harms Bill in this parliament, but since then DCMS Minister Caroline Dinenage MP has told members of the House of Lords that she could not commit to introducing the bill before the end of 2021. Lord Putnam warned that the bill may not therefore be passed into law until 2024. Facebook were recently revealed to have hired ten former UK Government civil servants, in what is suspected to be an effort to influence the content of the bill.

Young people tackling misinformation.

Youth Against Misinformation is formed of 31 young volunteers. It has two aims: to monitor and root out dangerous COVID-19 misinformation online; and build the skill-set and agency of young people to understand how misinformation is spread online, identify fake news and develop strategies to tackle it. Volunteers receive comprehensive training from Restless Development and CCDH on how to identify, report and respond to harmful misinformation online.

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