I would hazard a guess that a large percentage of Facebook’s user base was actually alive at the time it was first created as a dating app for college students, but it’s very clear that a significant portion of Facebook users now look upon it as an (if not their only) authoritative information source, valuing the opinion of their social circles more than scientific evidence and fact-checked expertise. An internal Facebook study has confirmed that a very small number of accounts out of the 3.3 billion total on its platforms (including WhatsApp and Instagram) account for half of all “vaccine hesitancy” content appearing on the platforms. While Facebook has only recently started banning false and misleading content related to the Coronavirus Pandemic, apparently there is still a vast amount of content expressing concerns about vaccine effectiveness or severity of side affects.
What this means for you
Conversations about vaccine hesitancy and fears are considered nuanced enough to fall well short of being labeled as “harmful” and rightly so – Facebook is a place for people to share their opinions. However, when those opinions are formed from what may have been deliberately planted misinformation, they can sway large swaths of populations into making choices that may prove detrimental to everyone’s health, such as vaccine reluctance in 30% of Americans. According to the Facebook’s own study, there appears to be 111 accounts that were the source of half the content published on Facebook that is causing a widespread distrust of a vaccines. Social media communities, especially ones that identify around a single (possibly controversial) belief tend towards reinforcing narratives instead of challenging them. The basic human need for validation has always created “echo chambers” in society, even well before the internet, but the size and speed of platforms like Facebook allow for the viral spread of both harmless fun and extremely harmful ideology with horrific outcomes.
To deliberately misquote a line from one of my all-time favorite movies, “What can we do against such reckless misinformation?” Riding out on a horse, while glorious, isn’t going to be effective. Make sure you are challenging misinformation by gathering information from a wide variety of sources. Don’t just assume those sources are reputable or trusted because they are on the internet or worse, found in your own echo chamber. Facebook can be a source of information, but as has been demonstrated time and time again, not one that should be fully trusted any time soon.
Image by Pablo Jimeno from Pixabay