‘Superspreader’ Facebook Pages Are Feeding Billions of People Health Misinformation, Unchecked: Report
Facebook poses a “major threat” to public health, concludes a report by U.S.-based advocacy organization Avaaz, which found health misinformation on the site was viewed 3.8 billion times in the last year.
The report found the top 10 misinformation sites — Realfarmacy, GreenMedInfo, The Truth About Cancer and Dr. Mercola to name a few — garnered four times more views than similar content from the top 10 leading, legitimate health institutions, including the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Some of the highlights of this widely-consumed misinformation include claims that Bill Gates backed a polio vaccine that paralyzed children in India, bogus cures such as colloidal silver for deadly diseases like Ebola, and an article that claimed quarantine was harming public health. All of these racked up millions of views in the past year, with the problem worsening since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.
In response, Facebook reiterated its mission to curb misinformation on the platform, both by flagging fake news as such and removing the more harmful misinformation consumed by users. But the move is too little, too late, Avaaz says, finding only 16% of the misinformation on Facebook carried a warning label, while the other 84% was allowed to stay online, without warnings, and without any initiative from Facebook to downgrade it from people’s feeds. This holds true not only for the top 10 sites that create the misinformation, but 82 sites and 42 Facebook pages (termed “superspreaders”) that amplify the misinformation, aided by a 1,000 more pages that spread these superspreaders’ content, Avaaz found.
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In the interconnected Facebook network, a few sites with millions of likes and subscribers were then able to reach billions of people through sister pages, ultimately successful in teaching people faulty hygiene and health measures, and creating distrust and suspicion around science and the legitimate organizations tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
To counter this infodemic, Avaaz suggests Facebook “correct the record, by providing all users who have seen misinformation with independently fact-checked corrections.” This, the organization says, can reduce the belief in misinformation by 50%. Another step they suggest is “downgrading misinformation posts” so they don’t appear on people’s News Feeds, which could reduce their reach by 80%.
In the coronavirus pandemic, when accurate and responsible health information is the need of the hour, and we see health institutions around the world struggling to make sense of the science behind this outbreak, it’s more important than ever to hold the systems we turn to for information accountable. For now, a lack of transparency on Facebook’s part is worsening the problem, in addition to its oft-iterated refusal to put a blanket ban on factually incorrect information.
This, if left unchecked, will only reinforce people’s anti-vax conspiracy theories, and exacerbate the dissatisfaction people are currently feeling with the fields of science and health, and increase distrust in legitimate health institutions. Which, needless to say, can be catastrophic.