Big tech has a vaccine misinformation problem – here’s what a social media expert recommends
With less than half the United States population fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and as the delta variant sweeps the nation, the U.S. surgeon general issued an advisory that called misinformation an urgent threat to public health. The advisory said efforts by social media companies to combat misinformation are “too little, too late and still don’t go far enough.” The advisory came more than a year after the World Health Organization warned of a COVID-related “infodemic.”
Algorithms on social media platforms are primed for engagement. Recommendation engines in these platforms create a rabbit-hole effect by pushing users who click on anti-vaccine messages toward more anti-vaccine content. Individuals and groups that spread medical misinformation are well organized to exploit the weaknesses of the engagement-driven ecosystems on social media platforms.
While social media companies have actively tagged and removed misinformation about COVID-19 generally, stories about vaccine side effects are more insidious because conspiracy theorists may not be trafficking in false information as much as engaging in selectively distorting risks from vaccination. These efforts are part of a well-developed disinformation ecosystem on social media platforms that extends to offline anti-vaccine activism.
Evidence suggests that infodemic superspreaders engage in coordinated sharing of content, which increases their effectiveness in spreading disinformation and, correspondingly, makes it all the more important to block them. Social media platforms need to more aggressively flag harmful content and remove people known to traffic in vaccine-related disinformation.
Another challenge is distinguishing between different types of engagement. My own research studying medical information on YouTube found different levels of engagement, people simply viewing information that’s relevant to their interests and people commenting on and providing feedback about the information. The issue is how vaccine-related misinformation fits into people’s preexisting beliefs and to what extent their skepticism of vaccines is accentuated by what they are exposed to online.