Facebook taken to task over vicious anti-vaxx vitriol

THE CEO of the Immunisation Coalition has insisted that Facebook and other tech giants must take responsibility for the COVID and anti-vaxx extremism taking root on their platforms.

Kim Sampson backed the call of digital democracy watchdog Reset Australia for the government to push social media companies to publish live lists of the pandemic misinformation shared on their pages.

“Live lists are one approach, but there may be others,” Mr Sampson said.

“We won’t know unless they [social media] come to the table.”

Mr Sampson explained that the COVID and vaccine disinformation readily available online, from outright virus denialism to wild conspiracy theories that the pandemic is an invention of Big Pharma or Bill Gates to make money, is often “quite vicious”.

“It’s easy to see how it could affect some people’s mental health,” he said.

He pointed to a study from researchers at the Paris Nanterre University suggesting people with lower levels of critical thinking skills are more vulnerable to conspiracy theories.

Sampson warned that spruikers of disinformation prey on that gullible sector of the population and endanger public health and the economy in general.

He said the resistance to lockdowns of COVID sceptics like former Pfizer chief scientist Michael Yeadon or ex-US President Trump stems from the desire of captains of industry to continue making money during the pandemic.

“A lockdown could put their wealth at risk, and the human cost becomes secondary.”

Mr Sampson said COVID myths are seeping beyond social media into mainstream media outlets such as Sky News, with some politicians, too, also supporting anti-lockdown messages.

“All of this is particularly problematic when the government has failed in its responsibility to protect the public.

“The mixed messaging and constant changing of rules has created far more confusion, giving the anti-vaxxers more ammunition.”

The scope of the problem

NewsGuard, a news credibility tracker, discovered the size of Facebook’s rabbit hole of COVID misinformation.

It found the technology behind Mark Zuckerberg’s social media behemoth is funnelling users towards hundreds of pages of falsities around everything from the dangers of masks to links between vaccines and 5G technology.

Reset Australia’s research echoed that of NewsGuard and pinpointed the number of Australians following public vaccine-sceptic groups on Facebook surged by 280 per cent since the start of the pandemic.

Reset Australia’s executive director Chris Cooper warned that recommendation tools and algorithms on online platforms “are supercharging conspiracy theories and misinformation”.

“Rampant misinformation on social media is compounding challenges in Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout,” he said.

“Genuine health concerns are being hi-jacked by anti-vaxx groups to stoke vaccine hesitancy and resistance.”

Mr Cooper called for transparency around the algorithms.

He said mandated live lists of disinformation would enable experts to debunk the myths.

“Tech giants have created platforms that produce both mega-profits and serious societal problems.

“If they accept the profits, they must also accept the oversight.

“Self-regulation will not work. It is no longer acceptable to have a user-beware style model when it comes to social media and digital platforms.”

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Ryan Fritz

Ryan Fritz started The Advocate in 2014 to provide not-for-profits and charities with another media platform to tell their worthwhile hard news stories and opinion pieces effortlessly. In 2020, Ryan formed a team of volunteer journalists to help spread even more high-quality stories from the third sector. He also has over 10 years of experience as a media and communications professional for not-for-profits and charities.

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