A recent study published in the prestigious Nature Journal’s Science Advances reveals that Facebook’s design features hindered its ability to control misinformation related to COVID-19 vaccines. The research conducted by the George Washington University (GW) in Washington, D.C. found that Facebook’s policies alone were ineffective in combating vaccine misinformation due to the core design features of the platform.
The study titled “The efficacy of Facebook’s vaccine misinformation policies and architecture during the COVID-19 pandemic” emphasized the danger of online misinformation, which promotes distrust in science and undermines public health. According to Prof. David Broniatowski, an expert in engineering management and systems engineering at GW, tackling misinformation requires looking beyond algorithms and content moderation to include the design and architecture of the platform.
Facebook’s design focuses on building communities around shared interests, utilizing architectural features such as fan pages and influencers to reach large audiences. These influencers can form groups designed to share information, including misinformation found off the platform. The research found that efforts to remove anti-vaccine content did not decrease overall engagement with such content and, in some cases, even led to an increase. This evidence highlights the difficulty society faces in removing health misinformation from public spaces.
The study also discovered that remaining anti-vaccine content on Facebook became more misinformative, containing false claims about vaccine side effects that were often too new to be fact-checked in real-time. Additionally, pro-vaccine content may have inadvertently been removed as a result of Facebook’s policies. Vaccine-related content also became more politically polarized.
Even when Facebook adjusted its algorithms and removed content and accounts, the platform’s architecture resisted these efforts. According to Broniatowski, Facebook’s architecture allows motivated individuals to easily build communities and exchange information, making it challenging to strike a balance between user behaviors and public health concerns. The study suggests that social media platforms should collaborate to develop a set of “building codes” informed by scientific evidence to reduce online harms.
This study is the first scientific evaluation of the efficacy of the world’s largest social media platform’s attempt to combat misinformation regarding COVID-19 vaccines.
Sources: GW Today