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Facebook said it would stop recommending anti-vaccine groups. It didn’t.

todayMay 21, 2021 5

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Facebook broadcast a sweeping pledge in a Feb. 8 blog post: It would remove false claims about vaccines from its platform. The declaration followed a series of promises over the preceding months to curb bogus health information on its site, particularly misinformation surrounding the pandemic. This included a commitment in September to stop recommending “health groups” in order to halt the practice of people turning to fellow Facebook users instead of doctors for medical advice.

But data from The Markup’s Citizen Browser project shows that not only is COVID-19 misinformation still easy to find on Facebook, the company has also continued to recommend health groups to its users, including blatantly anti-vaccine groups and pages explicitly founded to propagate lies about the pandemic.

Citizen Browser consists of a nationwide panel of Facebook users who automatically share their news feed data with The Markup, including which groups the platform recommends they join.

Even in this relatively small subset of 3,156 Facebook users, we found hundreds of health groups recommended to our panelists, including 31 groups or pages that contained anti-vaccine or anti-mask propaganda and misinformation about the pandemic. The recommendations we tracked occurred between Nov. 15 and May 1, including at least seven after Facebook’s latest announced crackdown in February.

For “health” groups, we searched for any group recommended to our panelists with a name that included the word “health” or any one of 12 health- and illness-related terms, and eliminated groups containing any of a list of keywords suggesting the groups were not related to bodily human health (e.g., “dog,” “cat,” “relationship”). To find pandemic-related information, we reviewed those health groups, along with additional searches for groups and pages with terms like “health freedom” and “medical freedom” and then examined the posts and descriptions to confirm the nature of their content. In some cases, the group’s titles themselves overtly pointed to misinformation, despite Facebook’s stated policies. See more on our data here.

On March 26, for instance, Facebook suggested that one of our panelists join a group called “Covid-19 is a HOAX!” The public group, with 81 members, describes itself as “a group of woke individuals who agree with the FACT Covid-19 is a fucking HOAX!” The group’s discussion feed is mostly filled with anti-vaccine video testimonials from the far-right site BitChute. Popular hashtags within the group include #ExposeCNN, #justsayno, and #wewillsupportyou.

Credit: The Markup