Facebook must act on algorithms pushing people towards anti-vaxx misinformation

  • Covid
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Reset Australia is demanding greater transparency about how Facebook’s algorithms work, as a new report shows users are still being pushed towards anti-vaccination and COVID-19 misinformation on the platform.

Research by NewsGuard provided to the World Health Organisation found that Facebook was recommending new conspiracy groups, including anti-mask and 5G theme pages, to users after they interacted with other health misinformation pages.

Reset Australia’s executive director Chris Cooper said these recommendations are the result of unchecked algorithms.

“Social media’s unchecked algorithms are supercharging conspiracy theories and misinformation, pushing some people into echo chambers where false information is all they see.

“Rampant misinformation on social media is compounding challenges in Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Genuine health concerns are being hi-jacked by anti-vaxx groups to stoke vaccine hesitancy and resistance.”

The NewsGuard report comes after Reset Australia’s own research found Australians following public anti-vaxx groups on Facebook surged 280% between January 2020 and March 2021. The research found engagement with the Facebook groups exploded during the initial 2020 national lockdown. Melbourne’s second lockdown generated over 177,000 monthly interactions, and this engagement has remained consistently high.

“We know that lockdowns create the perfect environmental factors that pull people down rabbit holes. During lockdowns we’re all online more, we’re worried and looking for answers, and we’re all trying to find engaging content to alleviate a bit of the boredom.

“Facebook algorithms are designed to pull us in and keep us online - but they don’t discriminate on what they’re engaging us with. If we want to stop the spread of misinformation online we actually need transparency about how these algorithms are operating and how we can moderate or disrupt their rabbit hole tendencies.”

Reset Australia is calling for the government to mandate platforms publish a “live list” of the most viral content surrounding COVID-19 so that misinformation can be seen and tracked. The initiative has been backed by some of Australia’s leading public health bodies, including the Doherty Institute, the Immunisation Coalition, the Immunisation Foundation of Australia, and CoronaVax.

“Australian authorities and the Australian public should be able to answer questions like: What kind of content is being amplified by these platforms? Who made it? What kind of demographics are consuming it? To do that we need a live list of the most contentious issues our society is facing, so we can begin to tackle misinformation collectively and transparently.

“Tech giants have created platforms that produce both mega-profits and serious societal problems. If they accept the profits, they must also accept the oversight.

“Self-regulation will not work. It is no longer acceptable to have a user-beware style model when it comes to social media and digital platforms.”

Reset Australia is the local affiliate of the global initiative working to counter digital threats to democracy and society.