Feb 9, 2021 - Technology

Experts say vaccine misinformation crackdown is coming too late

Illustration of a vaccine vile with a warning label starting to peal off

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Facebook on Monday became the latest in a run of tech firms and media outlets taking action to stem the tide of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, but experts worry the scramble to limit vaccination skepticism may be too little, too late.

Why it matters: "With all of these press releases, what we don't understand is, how is it actually going to be operationalized?" says Claire Wardle, the U.S. director of anti-misinformation nonprofit First Draft. "Anti-vaxxers have historically always figured out where the policy guidelines are and figure out a way around them."

Driving the news: In a partial reversal from its previous position on vaccine misinformation, Facebook said Monday it will take tougher action during the pandemic against claims that vaccines, including the COVID-19 vaccines, are not effective or safe.

  • Among other changes, the company will bar users from posting debunked claims about vaccination, like the idea that vaccines are not effective or cause autism.
  • Twitter, TikTok, YouTube and other platforms have also beefed up their anti-vaccination misinformation efforts in recent months.
  • Fox News last week debuted a new COVID-19 vaccine PSA featuring some of its talent. The ad comes shortly after Sean Hannity said he is "beginning to have doubts" about whether he would take a vaccine.

Yes, but: These efforts are only coming after anti-vax sentiment has swirled largely unchecked for years on major platforms — and months after public health officials began explaining that vaccines are likely the only way out of the pandemic.

  • "While I applaud Facebook for instituting these policies, they come a little bit late," says Chris Haynes, a political science professor at the University of New Haven. "I am afraid that the general fear and doubt that misinformation and false claims can cause is already out there in the public."

The big picture: While recent polls suggest Americans are growing more receptive to getting vaccinated, exposure to online COVID-19 misinformation makes people demonstrably less willing to do so, according to a peer-reviewed study published Friday in Nature.

  • The study, based on a September survey, found that recently seeing vaccine misinformation made respondents in the U.S. and U.K. more than 6% less likely to say they'll get vaccinated.

Be smart: Months of COVID-specific vaccine misinformation and years of more general falsehoods about vaccination may have already hardened millions of Americans against getting a shot, no matter what online platforms and media outlets do now.

  • And anti-vaxxers are adept at evading misinformation policies. They'll often, for instance, post first-person videos alleging negative vaccine side effects that can be impossible to fact-check, Wardle has noted.

What's next: Some advocates are pushing the Biden administration and lawmakers to make tech companies more answerable for misinformation that circulates on their platforms.

  • "The platforms will need to be much more transparent, and would do well to agree to a code for dealing with dangerous activity online," said Karen Kornbluh, director of the German Marshall Fund's Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative.
  • "Regulators will need to clarify that what happens online is subject to the same basic protections as what happens in the physical world."
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