Joe Biden might want to consider re-backpedaling after backpedaling his accusation that social media companies [Facebook] are “killing people” by spreading vaccine conspiracies and bunk. A new study suggests that Facebook’s news consumers are inordinately unwilling to get the covid-19 vaccine.
Facebook fired back at President Biden’s comment earlier this month with a blog post and a study from Carnegie Mellon University’s Delphi Group. It reported that, of millions of Facebook users, 85% of U.S.-based users were vaccinated or planned to get vaccinated. “President Biden’s goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4,” they sniffed. “Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed.” Biden later clarified that misinformation is killing people.
But the study didn’t account for people who consume news through Facebook, potentially exposing them to its massive disinformation mill and targeting them with the content that Facebook believes will get the most engagement. The new study of that user group nudges Facebook off its high horse.
Researchers from numerous universities, specializing in various public health and political science-related fields, surveyed 20,669 people from all 50 states and D.C., between June and July 2021. They found that 25% of people who only got news from Facebook in the previous 24 hours say they won’t get vaccinated, putting it below only Newsmax (41%) and slightly above Fox (23%).
An alarmingly high portion of people got their news (“news”) through Facebook. About a third (31%) had consumed news from Facebook over the past 24 hours, ranking Facebook as the second-largest news provider below CNN. Researchers didn’t define Facebook “news,” which could range from anything from user-generated content to Tucker Carlson to the New York Times.
As researcher David Lazer, political science and computer science professor at Northeastern University, pointed out to Gizmodo, Facebook’s numbers simply align with overall population data. “The 85% figure, depending on the threshold [the Delphi Group] used, roughly matches our numbers for the general population for being ‘potentially’ willing to get vaccinated,” he wrote. “Indeed, most surveys find about 15% of the population that is really hardcore that says they will never get the vaccine.”
Facebook and Delphi’s numbers (including people probably willing to get vaccinated) gel with the CDC’s report that nearly 70% of the U.S. adult population has received at least one dose of the vaccine and the Kaiser Family Foundation’s finding that 16% of U.S. residents don’t plan to get the vaccine unless forced to. Facebook’s estimate of 85% of users who got vaccinated or are willing to get it matches up.
Facebook could clean up the site, and activists and researchers have been telling it, for a year, about the culprits. And if it really wants to place the blame on users, it could stop algorithmically recommending the most “engaging” content, be it from Ben Shapiro or Aunt Charlene. Facebook will never be able to say it’s done everything it can to fight misinformation as long as it continues recommending content as a business practice. A March 2021 report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that 73% of vaccine disinformation originated from just twelve people. Today, the activist group Real Facebook Oversight backed up those findings with a report that over 83% of posts with the most engagement this quarter came from five disinformation spreaders.
That group also dropped a bunch of body bags at Facebook’s door this morning, pictured above. Facebook’s policy communications director Andy Stone tweeted that they’re out for “cheap stunts” and linked to the insubstantial blog post stating that 85% of U.S. Facebook users are vaccinated.
There’s no way to prove that people are dying specifically because of pieces of information they read on Facebook, but associating a primary vaccine disinformation source with death is not a performative exaggeration. As covid-19 case rates are doubling and tripling, especially in states with paltry vaccination rates like Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama, we’re reading daily reports of sufferers who wished they’d gotten the vaccine on their deathbeds. Doctors are pleading with the public to reconsider.
A pastor told Dallas-Fort Worth’s Fox News affiliate that he regretted believing disinformation after a brush with death. A 27-year-old who suffered a severe case said he’d believed he didn’t need the vaccine because he was young and fit. One mother who nearly died told ClickOrlando.com that she let disinformation-spreaders influence her with government conspiracy theories. A grieving mother recounted her 28-year-old son’s dying words to the Washington Post: “This is not a hoax, this is real.”
Facebook has historically chosen to sweep criticism under the rug with broad statistics about disinformation it’s removed and its number of moderators and pledges to change and add labels, but none of that translates to meaningful responsibility as a leading news source.
So Facebook’s hands-off attitude has reached Executive Branch intervention time. Earlier this month, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that, fine, the Biden Administration will do the job. She said they’re tracking covid-19 misinformation on Facebook and are making a series of recommendations for the company, and days later, Facebook told Biden to quit “finger-pointing.”
Update 7/28/2021 2:15 p.m. ET: Facebook has responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment, calling the study on Facebook news consumers “sensationalized” and “overstated.” They claimed that its method of asking respondents where they’d sourced their news in the previous 24 hours doesn’t reflect general trends, and that Facebook’s survey pool of all users is the correct frame.
“[W]hat they claim as ‘Facebook users’ is a non-representative idiosyncratic subset of the Facebook population,” they wrote. “The authors claim that people who rely on Facebook to get news and information about the coronavirus are less likely than the average American to be vaccinated. But this isn’t valid without describing a representative sample of the American population, Facebook users, or measuring reliance instead of mere self-reported exposure over a short time window.”