Corona is crap. Everyone can agree on that. Everyone wants a normal life back. There is also broad consensus on how to achieve this goal. The more people get vaccinated, the faster the pandemic will pass. A small but vocal minority sees it differently: Radical opponents of vaccinations spread lies and stir up unfounded fears.
Facebook is now declaring war on this disinformation. “We are stepping up our efforts to remove false claims about Covid-19, Covid-19 vaccines and vaccines in general on Facebook and Instagram during the pandemic,” writes Facebook manager Kang-Xing Jin. On both platforms, incorrect information on health topics is to be consistently deleted with immediate effect.
Facebook is thus tightening its action against the infodemia, which the World Health Organization warned against last spring. However, the new guidelines go a lot further than previous measures. In its help section, Facebook lists a large number of false claims that will no longer be allowed in the future. To see the updated page, you first have to change the language to English. When asked, Facebook assures that the policy will nevertheless take effect immediately and worldwide.
WHO sees vaccination skepticism as a health risk
If you search for the English term for vaccine, then “vaccine”, Then dozens of claims emerge, which Facebook wants to delete from now on: The corona vaccination is ineffective, causes autism, changes the genetic makeup, makes sterile, transforms vaccinated people into monkeys or secretly implant microchips. Such nonsense is regularly spread on social media.
It is long overdue that Facebook no longer wants to watch lies and rumors cause panic. Vaccinations are one of the most important achievements in science. They save millions of lives every year, and many serious diseases have been suppressed. For months, experts have been warning that targeted disinformation could reduce the willingness to be vaccinated against Covid-19.
The WHO also rates anti-vaccination campaigners as dangerous: as early as 2019, the organization counted the anti-vaccination movement among the ten greatest threats to global health. Diseases such as measles cannot be completely eradicated because in Western countries vaccine skeptics raise the mood against the injections. This applies all the more to the corona pandemic, in which decades-old prejudices against vaccinations are mixed with absurd conspiracy stories.
Facebook opens a gray area
But Facebook’s new guidelines also include claims where the facts are less clear. The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci, who has published a lot on the coronavirus in recent months, points to Twitter possible problems. If Facebook consistently enforces its new guidelines and also deletes them retrospectively, it would have to remove a large part of the publicly expressed recommendations from the first six months of the pandemic. This included advice from the WHO, the CDC, and reports from several major newspapers.
In fact, it took a long time for health organizations to unanimously recommend covering your mouth and nose. There is now scientific consensus that masks are an important component in the fight against the pandemic, but there is still not a mask requirement in all countries. Even so, Facebook is now banning all claims that suggest masks did not prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Of course, the context and the tone in which such claims are made play a crucial role. Most people should be able to tell whether someone is trying to stir up fears or whether someone is objectively discussing the current study situation. It is questionable whether the tens of thousands of content moderators who view and delete content on behalf of Facebook under great time pressure will be just as reliable – not to mention Facebook’s automated blocking system, which even makes mistakes in clear cases.
Enforcement is crucial
When asked about these concerns, a Facebook spokeswoman said the new guidelines were developed together with health organizations such as the WHO. However, it will take a while to train human moderators and machine filters accordingly.
In the end, it will be less about every detail of the measures, but more about how Facebook enforces them. After all, the company has tightened its guidelines for dealing with dangerous disinformation over the past year. Even so, an Avaaz report in August called Facebook’s algorithm a “public health hazard,” and Instagram is still full of vaccine nonsense. Anyone looking for “vaccine” there will see a number of prominent accounts that spread lies and stir up panic.