Review of Facebook Response to White House, “Moving Past the Finger Pointing”

This review aims to correct the misleading or false claims made in the Facebook press release.

A Review of “Moving Past the Finger Pointing”

This review aims to correct the misleading or false claims made in the Facebook press release.

Facebook: “At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in America, the Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies.”

The administration did not choose to “blame.” This is a mischaracterization of what happened. Researchers have been studying the growth of the anti-vaccine movement for years. Here is the movement by the numbers (Rosalie, 2021):

Researchers from the Center for Countering Digital Hate revealed that just twelve people generated 64% of antivaccine content (CCDH, 2020). Excerpt from the executive summary:

Analysis of a sample of anti-vaxx content that was shared or posted on Facebook and

Twitter showed up to 65% of anti-vaccine content can be traced to the leading online anti-vaxxers, who we label the Disinformation Dozen.

  • Individuals were selected based upon their high social media followings and high volume production of anti-vaccine content.

  • Our sample of anti-vaccine content was shared or posted on Facebook or Twitter a total of 812,000 times between February 1 and March 16 2021, with 65% of that sample attributable to the Disinformation Dozen.

  • In the last two months, our analysis of anti-vaxx content posted or shared to Facebook 689,000 times shows that up to 73% of that content originates from the leading anti-vaxxers included in this report.

  • Analysis of 120,000 anti-vaccine tweets and shares during this period finds that up to 17% feature the Disinformation Dozen.

  • CCDH’s ongoing tracking of 425 anti-vaxx accounts finds that the total following across platforms reached 59.2 million in December 2020, an increase of 877,000 since June. 


The research detailing the role of individuals in the disinformation dozen is newer but what isn’t is a report explained: “How Big Tech powers and profits from anti-vaccine misinformation” (CCDH, 2020). The press release on the research organizations website states:

Our latest report exposes how social media companies have helped sophisticated and rapidly growing anti-vaxx networks gain 58 million followers. Despite promises to keep users safe, we show how Big Tech itself makes up to $1 billion a year in advertising and other revenues from this industry, which threatens the effectiveness of a future Coronavirus vaccine.

While it is likely the White House referenced the research from CCDH (CCDH 2021), it is far from the only research that has raised concerns about the use of social media by groups, domestic as well as foreign disinformation operations, to spread m/disinformation. A study from August of 2020 included this in the abstract (Ortiz-Sánchez et al., 2020):

Social networks are used by the anti-vaccine groups to disseminate their information. To do this, these groups use different methods, including bots and trolls that generate anti-vaccination messages and spread quickly. In addition, the arguments that they use focus on possible harmful effects and the distrust of pharmaceuticals, promoting the use of social networks as a resource for finding health-related information. 

The anti-vaccine groups are able to use social networks and their resources to increase their number and do so through controversial arguments, such as the economic benefit of pharmaceuticals or personal stories of children to move the population without using reliable or evidence-based content.

In May of 2020, a study published in Nature read (Johnson et al., 2020)

Here we provide a map of the contention surrounding vaccines that has emerged from the global pool of around three billion Facebook users...Although smaller in overall size, anti-vaccination clusters manage to become highly entangled with undecided clusters in the main online network, whereas pro-vaccination clusters are more peripheral. 

Our theoretical framework reproduces the recent explosive growth in anti-vaccination views, and predicts that these views will dominate in a decade. Insights provided by this framework can inform new policies and approaches to interrupt this shift to negative views.


Facebook: “The fact is that vaccine acceptance among Facebook users in the US has increased. These and other facts tell a very different story to the one promoted by the administration in recent days.”

No one has disputed as to whether vaccine acceptance has increased or not nor has anyone asserted that Facebook’s efforts have been wholly ineffective, only insufficient in comparison with the responsibility it has for the problem. More than one research organization has looked at the efficacy of the changes and found that the platform fails to enforce its policies (CCDH 2021; Cybersecurity for Democracy 2021).

The Facebook press release goes on to demonstrate how some of its measures have been effective, which may be true but is not the point of contention. For example under vaccines, here was the most popular post about vaccines for July 16, 2021: 

It contains multiple inaccuracies, not the least of which is that communism starts this way as most regimes began prior to FB. The Wall Street Journal reported that the platform knew about the effect its algorithm was having on people psychologically, which encouraged political divisive by Facebook’s internal research (Horwitz & Seetharaman, 2020)

Facebook found that 64 percent of people who had joined an extremist group on the platform did so because the group was promoted by Facebook's automated recommendation tools.

To address the problem would require re-thinking the highly lucrative algorithm that prioritizes user engagement to get people to stay online longer so more ads can be sold to them (Horwitz & Seetharaman, 2020). A by-product of that can also be radicalization, and in March 2021, another research organization found that not much had changed.

In an article titled “Far-right news sources on Facebook more engaging,” Cybersecurity for Democracy shared its findings (Cybersecurity for Democracy 2021):

"Far-right sources designated as spreaders of misinformation had an average of 426 interactions per thousand followers per week, while non-misinformation sources had an average of 259 weekly interactions per thousand followers."

Note that was after platforms purged a large number of extremists and misinformation spreaders following the Jan 6 attack on the Capitol. At that time, I also examined whether the purge would alter how far-right media was performing (E Rosalie 2021).

Top-performing Facebook links on Jan 13, 2021:

1. Franklin Graham

2. Dan Bongino

3. Fox News

4. Ben Shapiro

5. Dan Bongino

6. Ben Shapiro

7. Dan Bongino

8. TWICE

9. The New York Times

10. Ben Shapiro

The top-performing links on Facebook for Jan 14, 2021

1. Ben Shapiro

2. Dan Bongino

3. ForAmerica

4. Ben Shapiro

5. Dan Bongino

6. Robert Reich

7. CNN

8. Dan Bongino

9. Dinesh D'Souza

10. Dinesh D'Souza

Top links for Jul 13, 2021, showing little has changed:

1. Ben Shapiro

2. Franklin Graham

3. Ben Shapiro

4. TheGrio

5. ForAmerica

6. Ben Shapiro

7. Top13

8. Fox News

9. Ben Shapiro

10. Robert Reich

To see the top 10 performing links on Facebook from July 2020 to July 2021:

Data

The trending shows that many known purveyors of m/disinformation remained as popular as they were before. Many known purveyors of m/disinformation remained as popular as they were before. The Daily Wire/Ben Shapiro, for example, coordinates inauthentic activity that makes the content seem more popular than it is. 

Although the four name accounts plus Daily Wire’s page have started posting at a different time than the rest of the pages that make it appear more popular than it is, they are indeed the same network.

Generally, the top 10 most popular posts are far-right posts and this likely happens as a byproduct of the algorithm showing us what it believes will encourage engagement. Emotional responses do that. 

The anti-vaccine movement and political polarization are not the possible legacies of Facebook. Researchers have implicated Facebook for its role in instances of genocide and abuse by autocratic leaders, as in the Philipines (Alba, 2018; Etter, 2017; Ovide, 2020) and Myanmar ((Shephard, 2018; Stevenson, 2018). The 2018 article, “Facebook Has A Genocide Problem,” reveals that a UN report found the regime in Myanmar had used the platform to incite violence against the Rohingya (Shephard, 2018). An excerpt from the article: 

“...social media platforms, eager to spread their reach, have largely cooperated with censorship requests from governments keen on controlling the flow of information. Facebook, in particular, has come under fire for its partnership with Philippine President Rodrigue Duterte, who has weaponized the social media site to attack his critics.


Facebook: “Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed.”

No one has asserted that Facebook is responsible for the White House missing its goal, and this misleadingly implies that this is the motivation for attacking the platform when the threat of disinformation is extreme. Independent of this administration the threat to democracy can be seen in the global slide toward autocracy, much of which has been aided by social media. 

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REFERENCES

Alba, D. (2018). How Duterte Used Facebook to Fuel the Philippine Drug War. Buzzfeed News, 4.

Brodwin, E., Palmer, K., STAT staff, Aguilar, M., & Lloreda, C. L. (2020, July 28). Facebook’s vaccine misinformation problem faces a new test with Covid-19. https://www.statnews.com/2020/07/28/facebook-vaccine-misinformation-antivaxx-coronavirus-covid/

CCDH. (2020, July). The Anti-Vaxx Industry: How Big Tech powers and profits from anti-vaccine misinformation ​. Center for Countering Digital Hate. https://www.counterhate.com/anti-vaxx-industry

CCDH. (2021a, May). The Disinformation Dozen. Center for Countering Digital Hate. https://www.counterhate.com/disinformationdozen

CCDH. (2021b, May). The Will to Act. Center for Countering Digital Hate: How Social Media Giants Have Failed to Live up to Their Claims on the Coronavirus “Infodemic.” https://www.counterhate.com/willtoact

Cybersecurity for Democracy. (2021, March 3). Far-right news sources on Facebook more engaging - Cybersecurity for Democracy - Medium. Cybersecurity for Democracy. https://medium.com/cybersecurity-for-democracy/far-right-news-sources-on-facebook-more-engaging-e04a01efae90

Etter, L. (2017, December 7). What Happens When the Government Uses Facebook as a Weapon? Bloomberg News. https://www.bloomberg.com

Facebooks Top 10. (n.d.). Twitter. Retrieved July 17, 2021, from https://twitter.com/FacebooksTop10?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw%7Ctwcamp%5Etweetembed%7Ctwterm%5E1349764295957991424%7Ctwgr%5E%7Ctwcon%5Es1_&ref_url=https%3A%2F%2Fcdn.embedly.com%2Fwidgets%2Fmedia.html%3Ftype%3Dtext2Fhtmlkey%3Da19fcc184b9711e1b4764040d3dc5c07schema%3Dtwitterurl%3Dhttps3A%2F%2Ftwitter.com%2FFacebooksTop10%2Fstatus%2F13497642959579914243Fs3D20image%3D

Gunitsky, S. (2020, February 19). The Great Online Convergence: Digital Authoritarianism Comes to Democracies. https://warontherocks.com/2020/02/the-great-online-convergence-digital-authoritarianism-comes-to-democracies/

Horwitz, J., & Seetharaman, D. (2020, May 26). Facebook Executives Shut Down Efforts to Make the Site Less Divisive. WSJ Online. https://www.wsj.com/articles/facebook-knows-it-encourages-division-top-executives-nixed-solutions-11590507499

Johnson, N. F., Velásquez, N., Restrepo, N. J., Leahy, R., Gabriel, N., El Oud, S., Zheng, M., Manrique, P., Wuchty, S., & Lupu, Y. (2020). The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views. Nature, 582(7811), 230–233.

Ortiz-Sánchez, E., Velando-Soriano, A., Pradas-Hernández, L., Vargas-Román, K., Gómez-Urquiza, J. L., Cañadas-De la Fuente, G. A., & Albendín-García, L. (2020). Analysis of the Anti-Vaccine Movement in Social Networks: A Systematic Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(15). https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17155394

Ovide, S. (2020, June 16). Conviction in the Philippines Reveals Facebook’s Dangers. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/16/technology/facebook-philippines.html

Rosalie, E. (2021, January 16). What Data Show About Censorship of Conservatives and the Part of the Story We’re Missing. The Startup. https://medium.com/swlh/have-conservatives-been-censored-and-if-so-why-abd71bcee20c

Shephard, A. (2018, March 15). Facebook Has a Genocide Problem. https://newrepublic.com/article/147486/facebook-genocide-problem

Stevenson, A. (2018, November 6). Facebook Admits It Was Used to Incite Violence in Myanmar. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/06/technology/myanmar-facebook.html