Long under fire for what critics have called lax regulation of misinformation and conspiracy theories, especially around the novel coronavirus, Facebook announced on Thursday that it had a new plan of action.
With two COVID-19 vaccines weeks away from beginning distribution in the United States, the company is targeting lies and fearmongering that has already begun to proliferate on its massive network.
“We will start removing false claims about these vaccines that have been debunked by public health experts on Facebook and Instagram,” Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook’s Head of Health, wrote in an announcement posted on Thursday morning. “This is another way that we are applying our policy to remove misinformation about the virus that could lead to imminent physical harm. This could include false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines. For example, we will remove false claims that COVID-19 vaccines contain microchips, or anything else that isn’t on the official vaccine ingredient list.”
The company also said that it would also continue to offer verified information about the virus. It did claim, however, that it would not be able to begin the new regime of fact-checking overnight, which may allow misinformation and conspiracies to run rampant right as vaccines begin to become available.
Facebook has long been a hive for anti-vaccine disinformation and propaganda, with rumors and lies largely focused on childhood vaccinations. In a report released in October, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate blasted Facebook for allowing groups dedicated to amplifying lies about vaccinations. The organization’s study noted that anti-vaxxer Facebook groups had over 31 million members and that social media companies could see a $1 billion windfall from their posts and activities.
In early November, Facebook announced an initiative to promote medically-cleared information about vaccines on its platform, though it was largely limited to seasonal flu vaccines and was criticized for not being nearly comprehensive enough or taking a stand against misinformation.
Also on Thursday, The Washington Post revealed that Facebook is adjusting its algorithms to better combat racism, having finally recognized the fundamental imbalance in who bears the brunt of hate speech.
The Post noted that for years, its “race-blind” algorithm was more likely to protect white people, despite the majority of hateful posts being targeted at people of color and other minorities. Facebook’s new “Wow” project — which stands for worst of the worst — will now actively work to detect and delete posts with speech targeted at Blacks, Muslims, people of more than one race, the LGBTQ community and Jews, according to The Post.
Last month, the New York Times reported that a long-running battle inside Facebook over an alleged conservative bias in its Newsfeed that led to the spread of conspiracy theories such as QAnon finally led founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg to agree to adjust the algorithm to prioritize vetted news.