THERE are fears that Facebook's algorithm could be "radicalising" Irish social media users, and directing them down rabbit holes which promote conspiracy theories about Covid-19.
It comes as social networks scramble to remove links to a questionable "documentary" from a discredited scientist, who incorrectly claims that wearing masks "activates" the virus.
An investigation by the Irish Independent and First Draft, an international network of journalists analysing misinformation during the global pandemic, found Irish conspiracy theory Facebook pages have been sharing and discussing the 'Plandemic' documentary.
Both YouTube and Facebook have started trying to take down the video, but conspiracy theorists have been sharing links to it on other sites.
An analysis of the Irish social media pages sharing links to the documentary has found that Facebook is automatically directing users of the pages towards even more conspiracy theories.
If a user finds and "likes" a page which makes incorrect claims about Covid-19, Facebook will immediately suggest a list of other pages for far-right bloggers or other conspiracy theories.
The theories include incorrect claims that Covid-19 is being spread by 5G, that wifi in schools is damaging children or that the pandemic is fake and that the Irish Government lockdown should be defied.
The suggested pages are collected by Facebook's algorithm, which uses artificial intelligence to direct users to content which might be similar to their interests.
Last year, YouTube faced major criticism of its algorithm after a number of investigations found it was automatically recommending videos which were more extreme.
James Lawless, Fianna Fáil's spokesman on technology, said that Facebook should examine what way its algorithm works when it's directing people from pages which clearly reference conspiracy theories in their titles.
"People talk about free speech and democracy and of course, that's something that we all champion," said Mr Lawless.
"But the idea of free speech is the idea of the public square, where people can have opposite points of view and articulate those views and have a debate of opinion.
"If people are being pushed into deeper and deeper rabbit holes of the same opinion, then you are not really having a public debate," he said.
"In actual fact, all you are doing is radicalising people. It polarises them further."
Mr Lawless has been in direct contact with Facebook since the start of the pandemic, and said the social network has vowed to be even more proactive in taking down and policing misinformation which could pose a threat to public health.
"I will have to challenge Facebook and ask them how seriously they are taking this because they say they are taking preventative measures but this direction of people down rabbit holes would say the opposite," Mr Lawless said.
A spokeswoman for Facebook said: "We proactively remove Covid-19-related misinformation including false claims about cures, treatments, the availability of essential services or the location and severity of the outbreak across our platform, including in groups.
"We reduce the distribution of any groups that repeatedly share false news and we remove coronavirus-related groups and pages from the recommendations we show people."
Facebook says that under its existing policies against harmful misinformation, it is "removing false claims that 5G technology causes the symptoms of or contraction of Covid-19".
"Anyone in Ireland who searches for or joins Covid-19-related groups is directed to credible information from the HSE."