How much vax misinformation do we want? Sure, the reflex answer is zero; but, then again, what about honest mistakes? That’s just slow misinformation. And we don’t want to eliminate debate, long-shot theories or controversial ideas. Plus, this is the land of free speech and the First Amendment. But there must be limits, right? And, if so, who draws that line? So far, it looks like we’re going to leave that up to Mark Zuckerberg and the like. Should we be okay with that?
What got me thinking again about the vax misinformation problem was a piece in The New York Times about the recent “Freedom Convoy” trucker protests in Canada. Specifically, I came upon this paragraph:
Pat King, who is listed as an official contact for a regional group involved in the protest and has been a prominent champion of the protests online, has called Covid a “man-made bioweapon” and claimed that international financiers want to “depopulate the Anglo-Saxon race.”
The Times had a link to that “bioweapon” quote and, curious, I clinked on the link and it took me to the screen shown below.
So, did the author take it down or had it been removed? Then I went to a second link in the same paragraph, the one with the “depopulate” notion. That link took me to a series of videos on Twitter, elaborating on that theory and other wild ideas. But, interestingly, I didn’t hear the word “Covid” in any of the little vids I watched there; rather, that was merely implied. Is that the secret to avoiding being censored?
That tiny mystery caused me to take a look at exactly how Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the others are working to remove misinformation.
ONE OTHER QUESTION, THIS ONE’S EASY
Before we dig in, let’s agree on the answer to a related question to the one about vaccine misinformation: The second question is, how much vax disinformation do we want? And there the answer is simple: none. To qualify as “disinformation,” the material must be known to be false and is meant to intentionally mislead or confuse. (Our word “disinformation” comes, by the way, from the old Soviet Union, 1950’s Russian, dezinformatsiya.) Nobody wants intentional lying and fear-mongering in the interest of profit. So, back to what to do about it…
FREE SPEECH AND VAX MISINFORMATION
There’s an intriguing piece at Vox.com where Sean Illing interviewed Genevieve Lakier, a University of Chicago Law School professor and First Amendment specialist (Vox, 5/5/21). He started by asking her if censoring or banning people on social media platforms was legal. Her reply:
It is definitely legal. …the First Amendment only limits government actors, and no matter how powerful they are under current rules, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter are not going to be considered government actors.
She also said, “People love to talk about free speech as an unadulterated good, but the truth is that the commitment to free speech has always meant a commitment to allowing harmful speech to circulate. Free speech means little if it only means protection for speech that we don’t think is objectionable or harmful.”
Professor Lakier went on to point out that there is the big exception of unlawful speech, including speech that violates copyrights or incites violence, but also suggested that there could be regulations that require transparency about content, and floated the idea of a governing body that would help guide policies about acceptable content.
She summed it up this way:
“The best we can do is to try and develop mechanisms, appeals, processes, reviews, and transparency obligations where the platform’s disclosing what it’s doing and how it’s doing it.”
THE SOCIAL MEDIA RULES
Let’s take a look at what social media says it will and won’t allow. For instance, there’s YouTube’s straightforward statement, shown verbatim below:
Vaccine misinformation policy
YouTube doesn’t allow content that poses a serious risk of egregious harm by spreading medical misinformation about currently administered vaccines that are approved and confirmed to be safe and effective by local health authorities and by the World Health Organization (WHO). This is limited to content that contradicts local health authorities’ or the WHO’s guidance on vaccine safety, efficacy, and ingredients.
What this policy means for you
If you’re posting content
Don’t post content on YouTube if it includes harmful misinformation about currently approved and administered vaccines on any of the following:
• Vaccine safety: content alleging that vaccines cause chronic side effects, outside of rare side effects that are recognized by health authorities
• Efficacy of vaccines: content claiming that vaccines do not reduce transmission or contraction of disease
• Ingredients in vaccines: content misrepresenting the substances contained in vaccines
This policy applies to videos, video descriptions, comments, live streams, and any other YouTube product or feature. Keep in mind that this isn’t a complete list. Please note these policies also apply to external links in your content. This can include clickable URLs, verbally directing users to other sites in video, as well as other forms.
Compared to YouTube’s simple list of rules, the folks at Facebook have so many rules they defy reading. I’d include them here, but they would amount to 14 printed pages. (Here’s a link if you want to wade in: https://www.facebook.com/help/230764881494641 )
Amongst the endless rules is a section on special cases, like quoting untrue claims in order to debunk them. And then there are the places that free speech gets tricky, for instance when people are talking about their own experiences. The FB policy states, “We will generally allow claims that are expressing a personal anecdote or experience — in service of our value of giving people voice — unless they promote or advocate harmful action around that claim.”
And that helps explain how, when I continued to read about the “Freedom Convoy” leader referred to above, I came upon the comment below and took a screenshot. Notice how it rates a link from the folks at Facebook to their vaccine information center. I wonder how many people clicked on that info center link.
Later, I went back to the same FB page, I found a message from the convoy group who said that the page had been taken down by Facebook; but, on the same spot, that same the old landing page, the authors provided a link to a new page for a new group: “Freedom Convoy” was now “Convoy to Ottawa.”
However, the next day that page was unavailable. So we can start to see just how this hide-and-seek game is being played.
THE “DISINFORMATION DOZEN”
To try to learn more about that game, I decided to see what I could learn about some of the masters of it. Nearly a year ago, a group called the Center for Countering Digital Hate came up with the “Disinformation Dozen,” saying that just these few people were producing something like two-thirds of the vaccine misinformation on social media. Included in their Dozen were Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Joseph Mercola, but I picked at random one of the lesser known names (at least to me), Christiane Northrup, to see what I could learn.
Northrup’s FB page was full of daily “Health Inspiration” messages, with pleasant images. Nothing struck this viewer’s eye as controversial. There were however, many messages urging the reader to sign up for a newsletter and for “new ways to stay on top of what I’m doing.” Here she listed four platforms: Gab, Telegram, Rumble and MeWe. I’d noticed a reference in one post mentioning Northrup a link to Rumble, so I followed it.
And there was a video from Northrup that included scary numbers about stillbirths related to vaccines. The person who offered that video to Rumble viewers offered a list of links to an array of misinformation articles with titles like “Library on the Criminal Covid-10 Hoax” and “Message to the Jabbed – Wake Up From the Spell Cast on Your Mind.”
The folks at Wired reported on Rumble and concluded, “Our research reveals that Rumble has not only allowed misinformation to thrive on its platform, it has also actively recommended it.” They added, “If you search ‘vaccine’ on Rumble, you are three times more likely to be recommended videos containing misinformation about the coronavirus than accurate information.” As of last summer, the site claimed 30 million users, up from one million the year before (as reported in the Washington Post).
As someone who came into this inquiry as a skeptic about the role of social media in vaccine information, I came away feeling that the folks at Facebook and YouTube were doing as much, maybe more, than I could have expected. They have no legal obligation to devote resources to policing misinformation, and they could have taken the easy way out and just hidden behind a “free speech” curtain. Instead, they make an effort in a battle that I now understand is Sisyphean. You can’t and don’t want to stop every offbeat theory, much less every anecdote. Meanwhile, those who want to promote misinformation will do so… endlessly. You can turn on the lights but the roaches just scatter, and they’re still in the wall.
Indeed, the efforts of the major platforms are not only expensive and intellectually troublesome, they have helped seed the success of less-responsible platforms.
Meanwhile, the major platforms continue to be sources of mostly accurate and helpful information. And, even if you’re like me and find that there’s something about Mark Zuckerberg that makes you cringe, I think spending some time with vaccine data on social media will make you feel better about Facebook and the other major platforms, at least when it comes to vaccines.
Vax Stats of the Month
Got Information Anxiety?
By Bill Davenhall, Geomedicine Analyst
Does the information you receive seldom tell you what you want to know? Are you overwhelmed by increasing quantities of data of dubious quality and accuracy? Do you receive increasing amounts of data or information from sources that only expect you to read the headline and accept their understanding of what it’s saying? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you probably have symptoms of a new disease: Information Anxiety!
“Information Anxiety” was first introduced three decades ago by Richard Saul Warman who also introduced the term “information architect” a decade earlier. Mr. Wurman, long known for his ability to reduce complex information into useful bites of intelligence, has been the de-facto leader of a movement that values understanding of the information we receive rather than its bulk or the number of rows and columns it contains. If you seek professional help to recover from this information disease, know that it has even found its way into the International Classification of Disease, 10th Edition with a medical billing code!
If you manage data or help create informational products for the public, then perhaps you will be interested in how you can provide better informational “products” that people can understand. I would suggest the first step toward your recovery is gaining a better method of identifying the information you believe you really need to know. By living in a world of too much information the challenges of understanding are enormous and stress-producing.
One way I try to manage my information perspective is to rely on data sources that have been routinely collected in very precise ways over a long period – like Census data, economic data, governmental spending data, voting data, consumer spending data, weather data, stock trading data, sports score data, and health and social care data. Data with a collection legacy is far safer for debate than data collected yesterday and presented today or tomorrow and never seen again. Some data have long quality control track records while others sketchy or with hidden tracks. Much of the hotly debated “data de-jour” is either short term or episodic and often for a very specific situation (geographical or political). Understanding the reasons for peaks and valleys in a collection of data is not always straightforward, but if the underlying collection legacy is suspicious, then the value of your interpretation and understanding can be seriously eroded.
The approach that USAFACTS has adopted is one that’s delivering Americans a better information diet. This non-profit organization, founded by former Microsoft’s CEO, Steve Balmer, believed that unless the data is seen as objective, collected by well-known entities in transparent ways, then, “informed discussion and debates can’t happen.” Information presented in clear, concise, and graphically stimulating formats, along with a higher degree of validity legacy devoid of editorializations, is one of their goals. I would suggest you look at this free source of quality US governmental information and how it came to be and how you can gain access to more of it. It’s not everything you might want or need but it demonstrates an approach that can restore your confidence in the numbers published by well-known sources.
I recently looked at one Covid-19 vaccine graphic from USAFACTS regarding how people in all US states accepted the COVID 19 vaccine and to what extent. I needed a simple way to understand what states I might need to avoid travel during another pandemic. This graphic helped me understand that and I could also seek additional data on each state. I quickly understood what the data was saying (acceptance of vaccines for the most recent infectious disease), and I could easily prepare my travel plans.
See what you might understand about this geo-medical information. Understanding information is really the prize in intelligent and honest discussion, debate, and action. Data is simply understanding’s handmaiden, so if the information you’re consuming is not coming from sources with proven track records and a generous helping of transparency, objectivity, and collection integrity, then understanding what it says to you will be difficult, confusing, and limited in its usability.
2nd opinions always appreciated.