Tech & The Web

Health Misinformation Goes Unmarked on Facebook, Report Finds

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A report claims the majority of health misinformation doesn’t get marked as misinformation, despite Facebook’s efforts to fact-check.

Looking for health misinformation about the pandemic? Just sign on to Facebook, a report from a global human rights group called Avaaz suggests.

For years, people repeated the joke that claims anything on the internet must be true. Some versions make it a quote attributable to Abraham Lincoln. (He died more than a century before people heard of the internet.)

If the technology would surprise Lincoln, the amount of falsehoods would certainly disappoint him.

Facebook, for its part, claims it works to combat such false reports. But consider how many users and how many posts there are. It’s a daunting task. But Avaaz’s report says 84% of health misinformation does not get flagged as false on the social media platform.

The organization even called the Facebook algorithm “a threat to public health.” That sounds a bit extreme on one hand. But when I scroll through my newsfeed and I see how many people I know will share anything, no matter how outlandish or far-fetched it seems, it no longer sounds so extreme.

Even worse, the report estimated that misinformation generated 3.8 billion page views across at least five countries in the past year. They peaked “at an estimated 460 million page views on Facebook in April 2020, just as the global pandemic was escalating around the world,” the report states.

I see people spreading false information for two primary reasons.

The first is that they want to be in line with the Trump administration, which initially called it a hoax. Though it ultimately did take action, there are still people who think it’s a hoax. A recent commenter here — whose comment was so rude that I deleted it — called it a hoax and indicated she supports Trump. Not all Trump supporters — and certainly not all Republicans — believe COVID-19 is a hoax. But it seems that more on the right do than on the left.

The second reason seems to be for financial motives. Yes, the pandemic sent the economy into a tailspin. Some spread anything they feel supports their point of view that it’s time to reopen the economy…no matter what. They question the “agenda” of anyone who disagrees, but they seem to think no one notices their obvious agenda. If making their argument means using information they haven’t personally fact-checked, that’s fine. They fully accept the notion that if it’s online, it must be true. So there.

Of course, there’s a third reason. This one probably applies to more people and isn’t intentionally sinister. I’d call it, among other things, sincere laziness. People are too lazy to fact-check for themselves. If they see it and it sounds ok, they assume it must be. They share. Unfortunately, they act shocked when someone else does the fact-checking for them.

But we can’t forget that there are people in the first two groups also gripped by laziness.

I’d call that a threat to public health, too.

Some of the health misinformation didn’t focus on COVID-19.

The report found the number one false post focused on a conspiracy theory involving Bill Gates and a polio vaccine. The conspiracy theories claimed a vaccine caused “the global expansion” of polio. There’s no global expansion of polio. The theories allege several mistruths about Bill Gates — claims from his wanting to “reduce the world population” through “vaccines” that cause sterilization to claims vaccines for various disorders provided through the Bill Gates Foundation led to multiple child deaths.

The most prominent misinformation post on COVID-19 specifically was a story with two emergency medical doctors claiming quarantines don’t make sense. People who didn’t like the idea of being quarantined, naturally, shared that story over stories from medical organizations that strongly recommended quarantines. They act as if they believe these “two emergency medicine doctors” possessed a corner of the market on knowledge that the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and prominent epidemiologists missed. The very idea is absurd. But again, it attracted people who wanted the news to be true, whether it was or not.

Avaaz said the doctors’ claims were refuted by a London study that estimated lockdown policies averted more than 3 million deaths across 11 European countries.

YouTube removed a video the article was based on for violating its policies, Avaaz reported.

Yet that anti-lockdown post racked up 2.4 million views.

Facebook says the report (which you can read in full here) doesn’t reflect efforts they’ve made to curb that false information. But given the magnitude of how much health misinformation goes up by the day, it might be an unwinnable war.

And those who spread it constantly, either through not knowing any better or because they just want to be right, aren’t helping the problem!

The best advice is to vet your own posts.

If the health community says one thing and a handful of “rouge” doctors say the opposite, you might put a bit more weight on the larger community.

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Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.