Mar 5, 2021

Online vaccine misinformation is big business for creators

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Twitter said it will ban repeat violators through a five-strike system.

Now that COVID-19 vaccines are pretty close to mass production in the U.S., it’s even more crucial to fight misinformation about them. That battle is going … OK.

Twitter this week said it will ban users who spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation after five strikes. Facebook last month said it would do more to remove misleading posts on both Facebook and Instagram, including removing accounts. YouTube has said it banned COVID-19 misinformation, too.

But in all these cases, enforcement is spotty and complicated by the fact that some social media influencers are finding that vaccine hesitancy is a great way to make a little cash. I spoke with Sarah Frier, a senior technology reporter for Bloomberg. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

A headshot of Sarah Frier, a senior tech reporter at Bloomberg News.
Sarah Frier (Photo courtesy of Frier)

Sarah Frier: It is not only profitable, it is a means of selling products. It’s profitable in terms of boosting a following and getting people really interested in what you have to say. But if you tell people, “I don’t think that you need to socially distance. I think we just need to boost our immune systems, so don’t wear a mask. Instead, you should buy my proprietary supplements that will boost your immune system,” or instead, “I will charge you a limited-time offer for one-on-one vaccine consultation.” And these people are not doctors. And then, we have to think as consumers of that information: Who are we listening to? And are we really thinking critically about what we’re being told?

Molly Wood: And also, how much harder does it make this problem? It’s one thing to sort of be playing whack-a-mole with various types of misinformation. But you’re talking about creators that have tons of followers that people really are attached to. If they disappear from these platforms, then there’s a lot of backlash.

Frier: There is that, and I think there’s also just a lot of coded language that gets used on YouTube, Facebook’s Groups, Instagram’s wellness community. I’ve seen, when we’re talking about vaccines, especially one of the big hashtags is like informed consent. That’s not necessarily a controversial thing to say, but it’s like a wink-wink, “Do your own research. Don’t let anyone tell you what to think.” Essentially, “Don’t listen to your doctor. Listen to me.”

Wood: More than 100 medical professionals sent this open letter to Facebook, saying that COVID-19 misinformation is “prolonging the pandemic and costing lives.” Is there a point at which this is such a big problem for society, for even Facebook’s own employees coming back to work, for the economy, that it actually does become impossible to ignore?

Frier: I think we are approaching that point. In 2019, I should say, the World Health Organization already listed vaccine hesitancy as a top 10 thing on their radar for giant, global public health problems like HIV and Ebola. But now COVID-19 has taken this conversation beyond just the normal set of people who think about vaccination, which is parents of very young children, into the mainstream, into adults’ decision-making about our own lives.

Wood: This letter came out, people have been frustrated with the slow pace of enforcement of these policies. Facebook and Instagram, in particular, expanded the type of disinformation that the company would take down about a month ago. Have we seen any improvement?

Frier: We’ve seen some high-profile account removals, some of the biggest names, who are spreading the most obvious misinformation. But, like I said, this is now pervasive. It’s not just about the group that was many thousands of members strong that was promoting an anti-vax agenda openly. It’s about the local neighborhood group, where people are sharing tips about what babysitter to hire. But then they’re also sharing their opinion on the vaccine. And that is how this information is spreading now because it has become a little bit more of a mainstream topic of conversation. Everyone’s thinking about the vaccine, everyone’s thinking about COVID-19, everyone’s having these conversations now. So it has not just become something that you see as blatant medical misinformation channels, which is what Facebook and Twitter are working to take down. It has really become something that is part of dinner-table conversation, part of conversations among friend groups and groups about various interests.

Wood: We, and policymakers, have been talking a lot about Facebook and Twitter. What about YouTube? I mean, this misinformation is rampant on YouTube, right?

Frier: I think the thing that policymakers miss is that they don’t receive their information that way. It’s a younger generation that does. I mean, YouTube is the destination for trying to understand things you don’t understand. People go there for how-to videos about making a shed in their backyard and making a cake. They’re also going to go there for information on their health. I would say Instagram is also another player that doesn’t get enough attention. Instagram has become a host to this aspirational lifestyle, this whole contingent of wellness influencers, who are teaching you how to be the best version of yourself through diet, through exercise, through manifesting your goals. And those same people have started to get questions about: Is COVID-19 really a problem? Are these vaccines safe? And those people are not medical professionals, but they’re giving advice on it, and often that advice is pseudoscientific and sending people down the wrong path.

An image of two phones that show the interface of Twitter, with tweets about the COVID-19 vaccine labeled with reliable vaccine information.
Twitter will start labeling tweets that may have misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. If a user continues the tweets, the company will lock the account. (Photo courtesy of Twitter)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

A Washington Post story from February talks about how religious misinformation, in particular, is running rampant on TikTok and other platforms. Some churches, ministries and Christian influencers are associating the vaccine with the devil or making false claims that vaccines were created using fetal tissue.

But there are some pieces that are hopeful countermeasures. There’s a piece in The Atlantic from last month about local governments who are specifically reaching out to online influencers to get them to make sponsored content promoting vaccines, mask wearing and such as part of their public health campaigns. And there’s also an initiative to get young people of color on TikTok to create an awareness campaign around the virus called See Friends Again.

And, yes, I am aware that as we are approaching a full year of dealing with this pandemic in the U.S., that a functioning public health infrastructure would have created far-reaching social media awareness campaigns the first time the pandemic came around, but I’m trying not to be bitter.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
Michael Lipkin Senior Producer
Stephanie Hughes Producer
Jesus Alvarado Assistant Producer