President Biden explicitly told reporters last week that Facebook was “killing people,” later clarifying that he hoped his comment would drive the tech company to take action against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation teeming on its website. That site, after YouTube, is the most popular social media platform in the U.S., used by seven in ten Americans, half of whom check their accounts multiple times a day.
Besides engaging with viral anti-vaccine posts from political influencers like Candace Owens and Ben Shapiro, many users are also enrolled in anti-COVID-19 vaccine groups that spread unfounded conspiracy theories about the shot. Media Matters, a left-leaning media watchdog group, recently released research results reporting it had identified 284 of these groups—more than double the 117 they’d found in April—hosting a total of 520,000 members. They assert that Facebook is being “dishonest or willfully ignorant,” and not proactive enough in combatting the spread, as the delta variant claims more and more lives among the unvaccinated.
Media Matters researchers find these groups manually, by searching for common keywords, says Kayla Gogarty, associate director of research. They found groups such as: Canadian Deaths and Adverse Reactions; The Vaccine-Free Child; and Don’t Shed on Me Litigation, which is dedicated to organizing lawsuits “to prevent colleges from trying to mandate the jab … around the country.” That group’s name refers to a conspiracy theory about harmful effects being passed, or “shed,” from vaccinated individuals to unvaccinated women, causing reproductive disturbances like menstrual cycle shifts and miscarriages.
Another group, MTHFR Connections, hosting 28,000 members, spreads conspiracies about the MTHFR gene, a gene within the body that encodes an enzyme that creates an essential protein in the body. The myth is that the vaccine can cause the gene to mutate, and cause issues as outlandish as autism, tied lips and tongues, and a “leaky gut.” (Separately, in a comments section on the group, one user advises another, who was to visit a family member who’s been vaccinated, to prepare their body against shedding by drinking “white pine needle tea.”)
While researchers can’t prove definitively that there are more groups since April—because some groups often morph into new ones or changes names—they say it’s clear that the conspiracies are still proliferating, when it’s especially urgent to get people vaccinated. “The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” Biden said last week. There’s a clear pattern of higher hospitalizations and deaths in states that have been lax in vaccinations: Alabama, which has the lowest vaccinated rate, had 41 deaths in the past week, versus zero in Vermont, which has the highest rate.
Facebook does have a COVID-19 anti-misinformation policy, which says they remove “misinformation that could contribute to imminent physical harm.” But, Gogarty says it’s not quick enough in doing so. “They always take action after,” she says. “They’re never proactive about it.” In April, for instance, it was revealed that Facebook had enough information about members of the Stop the Steal movement using the site to plan the eventual Capitol insurrection. After Media Matters research was released, two of the groups, Canadian Deaths and The Unvaccinated Arms, appear to have been now shut down.
A Facebook spokesperson responded to a request for comment. “We are reviewing the report, and will take action against groups that violate our policies. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have removed 18 million pieces of COVID misinformation, labeled over 167 million pieces of false content, and connected over 2 billion people with authoritative information through tools like our COVID information center.” For Gogarty, those are merely words. “In a lot of cases,” she says, “Facebook is just more focused on PR than combating the real problem of misinformation.”
The majority of the groups in question are private, which Gogarty says, makes it harder for Facebook to shut them down (and for researchers to search for, which means there are probably more than they identified). Another particularly troubling recent change is that Facebook conspirators are now cognizant of the moderation that does take place, so they’ve taken to using codewords so they can’t be found by the usual keywords searches. For instance, some have taken to saying “jabs,” British slang for shots—and even a modification, “jibs.” One post called the vaccine “the potion,” and the MTHFR group appears to spell it “v@xynes.”
Gogarty says the platform needs to be more consistent about enforcing their policies, and more proactive in foreseeing problems ahead. After all, these narratives aren’t new; they started circulating before the vaccines were even authorized. “They’ve been seeing it repeatedly,” she says. “And now, it’s cemented in the minds of millions of Americans.”