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‘These people are selling fear and outrage. It is not a fluke. It is a business model’

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Erin Scott/Reuters

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Erin Scott/Reuters

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Erin Scott/Reuters

In March, as claims about the dangers and ineffectiveness of coronavirus vaccines spun across social media and undermined attempts to stop the spread of the virus, some Facebook employees thought they had found a way to help.

By altering how posts about vaccines are ranked in people’s newsfeeds, researchers at the company realised they could curtail the misleading information individuals saw about Covid-19 vaccines and offer users posts from legitimate sources like the World Health Organisation.

“Given these results, I’m assuming we’re hoping to launch ASAP,” one Facebook employee wrote, responding to the internal memo about the study.

Instead, Facebook shelved some suggestions from the study. Other changes weren’t made until April.

When another Facebook researcher suggested disabling comments on vaccine posts in March until the platform could do a better job of tackling anti-vaccine messages lurking in them, that proposal was ignored.

Critics say Facebook was slow to act due to concern over the impact on profits.

“Why would you not remove comments? Because engagement is the only thing that matters,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an internet watchdog group. “It drives attention and attention equals eyeballs and eyeballs equal ad revenue.”

In an emailed statement, Facebook said it had made “considerable progress” with downgrading vaccine misinformation in users’ feeds.

Facebook’s internal discussions were revealed in disclosures made to the US Securities and Exchange Commission and provided to Congress in redacted form by former Facebook employee turned whistleblower Frances Haugen’s legal counsel. These redacted versions were obtained by a consortium of news organisations, including The Associated Press.

The trove of documents shows that in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Facebook carefully investigated how its platforms spread misinformation about life-saving vaccines. They also reveal how rank-and-file employees regularly suggested solutions for countering anti-vaccine content on the site, to no avail. The Wall Street Journal reported on some of Facebook’s efforts to deal with anti-vaccine comments last month.

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Facebook’s response raises questions about whether the company prioritised controversy and division over the health of its users.

“These people are selling fear and outrage,” said Roger McNamee, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist and early investor in Facebook who is now a vocal critic. “It is not a fluke. It is a business model.”


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