The social media giant, which has long been under fire from lawmakers over how it handles misinformation on its platforms, said it had in recent months banned such claims as ‘social distancing does not work’ because they pose a risk of ‘imminent’ harm. Under these rules, Facebook took down a video post on Wednesday by U.S. President Donald Trump in which he claimed that children are “almost immune” to COVID-19.
But in most instances, Facebook does not remove misinformation about the new COVID-19 vaccines that are still under development, according to the company’s vaccine policy lead Jason Hirsch, on the grounds that such claims do not meet its imminent harm threshold. Hirsch told Reuters the company is “grappling” with the dilemma of how to police claims about new vaccines that are as yet unproven.
“There’s a ceiling to how much we can do until the facts on the ground become more concrete,” Hirsch said in an interview with Reuters, talking publicly for the first time about how the company is trying to approach the coronavirus vaccine issue.
Tom Phillips, editor at one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners Full Fact, sees the conundrum this way: “How do you fact check about a vaccine that does not exist yet?”
For now, misinformation ranging from unfounded claims to complex conspiracy theories about the developmental vaccines is proliferating on a platform with more than 2.6 billion monthly active users, a review of posts by Reuters, Facebook fact-checkers and other researchers found.
The worry, public health experts told Reuters, is that the spread of misinformation on social media could discourage people from eventually taking the vaccine, seen as the best chance to stem a pandemic that has infected millions and killed hundreds of thousands worldwide, including 158,000 people in the United States alone.
At the same time, free speech advocates fret about increased censorship during a time of uncertainty and the lasting repercussions long after the virus is tamed.
Drawing the line between true and false is also more complex for the new COVID-19 vaccines, fact-checkers told Reuters, than with content about vaccines with an established safety record.
Facebook representatives said the company has been consulting with about 50 experts in public health, vaccines, and free expression on how to shape its response to claims about the new COVID-19 vaccines.
Even though the first vaccines aren’t expected to go to market for months, polls show that many Americans are already concerned about taking a new COVID-19 vaccine, which is being developed at a record pace. Some 28% of Americans say they are not interested in getting the vaccine, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted between July 15-21. Among them, more than 50% said they were nervous about the speed of development. More than a third said they did not trust the people behind the vaccine’s development.
The U.K.-based non-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate reported in July that anti-vaccination content is flourishing on social media sites. Facebook groups and pages accounted for more than half of the total anti-vaccine following across all the social media platforms studied by the CCDH.
One public Facebook group called “REFUSE CORONA V@X AND SCREW BILL GATES,” referring to the billionaire whose foundation is helping to fund the development of vaccines, was started in April by Michael Schneider, a 42-year-old city contractor in Waukesha, Wisconsin. The group grew to 14,000 members in under four months. It was one of more than a dozen created in the last few months which were dedicated to opposing the COVID-19 vaccine and the idea that it might be mandated by governments, Reuters found.
Schneider told Reuters he is suspicious of the COVID-19 vaccine because he thinks it is being developed too fast to be safe. “I think a lot of people are freaking out,” he said.
Posts about the COVID-19 vaccine that have been labeled on Facebook as containing “false information” but not removed include one by Schneider linking to a YouTube video that claimed the COVID-19 vaccine will alter people’s DNA, and a post that claimed the vaccine would give people coronavirus.
Facebook said that these posts did not violate its policies related to imminent harm. “If we simply removed all conspiracy theories and hoaxes, they would exist elsewhere on the internet and broader social media ecosystem. This helps give more context when these hoaxes appear elsewhere,” a spokeswoman said.
Facebook does not label or remove posts or ads that express opposition to vaccines if they do not contain false claims. Hirsch said Facebook believes users should be able to express such personal views and that more aggressive censorship of anti-vaccine views could also push people hesitant about vaccines towards the anti-vaccine camp.