Facebook’s response to Biden’s COVID misinfo criticism is a big miss


President Biden has really gotten under Mark Zuckerberg’s skin.

On Friday, a reporter asked Biden what he would say to platforms like Facebook when it came to COVID misinformation. Biden’s response: “They’re killing people.”

Facebook’s rebuttal was quick.

“We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts,” said a Facebook spokesperson in a statement to Mashable that afternoon. “The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet.”

Facebook attempts an offensive

Facebook wasn’t done there though.

On Saturday, the company dropped a follow-up by it’s VP of Integrity Guy Rosen. His post, titled “Moving Past the Finger Pointing: Support for COVID-19 vaccines is high on Facebook and growing,” was published on the Newsroom section of the website.

“At a time when COVID-19 cases are rising in America, the Biden administration has chosen to blame a handful of American social media companies,” Rosen begins. “While social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a whole of society approach to end this pandemic. And facts — not allegations — should help inform that effort.”

Rosen goes on to focus on a survey Facebook conducted with Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland which finds that “85% of Facebook users in the US have been or want to be vaccinated against COVID-19.”

“President Biden’s goal was for 70% of Americans to be vaccinated by July 4,” Rosen writes, speaking of the Biden administration’s failed target in its battle against COVID-19. He concludes: “Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed.”

The survey is questionable. Wouldn’t those who have been vaccinated be more likely to take this survey? But, first, let’s get this out of the way. There are a myriad of reasons why the Biden administration is struggling to get 70 percent of the country vaccinated. As Rosen points out, other countries such as Canada and the UK have blown past that vaccination rate.

For one, these countries do not have to deal with the vaccine disinformation being beamed onto the TV sets of millions of people in the form of Fox News, Newsmax, and OAN 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Politicians in this country have hyper-politicized the issue. Florida Governor Ron Desantis, a Republican, released a line of anti-vaxxer-esque merchandise just this past week.

So, of course, Facebook is not the reason this goal was missed. But, it’s surely a reason.

Facebook’s selective data

Facebook hones in on its stat that “more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook.”

That’s well and good. But how many people have viewed anti-vaccination, COVID denying conspiracy theories on Facebook? Does the good Facebook says it does outweigh the negative? The answer: We don’t know. Facebook does not release this data.

Facebook shares that it has “removed over 18 million instances of COVID-19 misinformation” since the beginning of the pandemic. The company says it has also “labeled and reduced the visibility of more than 167 million pieces of COVID-19 content debunked by our network of fact-checking partners so fewer people see it.”

When touting that 3.3 million Americans used their vaccine finder tool, a Facebook spokesperson said “[he facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”cking partners got a hold of it? How many people saw it and never caught the fact check? We just don’t know.

Facebook does not release stats related to content reach, or how many people viewed a piece of content on its platforms. This actually became a point of contention inside the company, as Kevin Roose of The New York Times recently reported.

Roose created a Twitter account which used Facebook’s Crowdtangle platform to share which Facebook Pages had the top posts each day. Crowdtangle is a platform that Facebook provides to researchers and journalists where they can sift through data related to posts and pages on Facebook and Instagram. Roose’s Twitter account based the top performing pages on engagement, or how many people interacted with the content — a data point which Facebook provides.

The account showcased just how often right wing pages, which regularly post conspiratorial content and misinformation, make up the top-performing content on the platform.

Roose’s Twitter account caused issues within Facebook. Company executives had felt reach would be a better data point than engagement and there was a push to provide more data to researchers…until Facebook discovered that the same types of accounts were dominating in reach too. So, Facebook turned against Crowdtangle, a tool that actually provides transparency, rather than the issue itself and decided it would fight back with messaging using data it selects.

One of the results of this: The post we see from Facebook, using such selective data to push back against the Biden administration.

Facebook won’t tell us

Even if Facebook’s argument is that the company is doing everything correctly now, the fact is that the algorithm it created, which continues to award reactionary content — i.e. conspiracy theories, misinformation — that receives the most engagement, undermines positive efforts. Also, there’s plenty of damage done before corrective actions can be taken in the first place.

When touting that 3.3 million Americans used their vaccine finder tool, a Facebook spokesperson said “[t]he facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”

With more than 320 million people living in the U.S. and a vaccination rate currently sitting at less than 50 percent, how many more Facebook users were served up misinformation which could’ve played a role in a decision to not get vaccinated? How much of that misinformation was recommended to them via Facebook’s algorithm?

Facebook could share this information and dispel Biden’s accusations. But, we just don’t know because Facebook won’t tell us.

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