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Is Facebook really helping spread COVID-19?

Experts point to data that supports President Biden’s view

[Editors note: This article was originally published on Entrepreneurial Journalismcreated by James BreinerYou can sign up for his newsletter here.]

“Ask any expert, they will tell you that Facebook is the most dangerous player in the digital world.”

When I read this opinion from Frederic Filloux, a digital media expert, I was surprised by its severe tone. But he went on: “The social network’s business model is based on fracturing society, spreading false information ranging from the ‘stolen’ election of 2020 to antivax propaganda.”

Filloux was criticizing European anti-monopoly regulators for focusing too much attention on Google and Amazon while Facebook was, in his opinion, undermining democratic society.

A simple test

His opinion was supported by NewsGuard, the service which bills itself as “the Internet trust tool”. It provides “trust ratings for 6,000+ news websites that account for 95% of online engagement with news.”

Image from NewsGuard.

In its most recent investigation for the World Health Organization, NewsGuard found that when its analyst “liked” a single anti-vaccine Facebook page, “a Facebook drop-down suggested several more anti-vaccine pages.”

The analyst repeated the process by ‘liking’ one of the recommended pages. Within 10 minutes, the analyst was recommended dozens of pages publishing misinformation about vaccine and COVID-19, each of which had many thousands of followers.

“Facebook’s recommendation function funnels users towards a seemingly endless stream of anti-vaccine and health misinformation pages,” according to NewsGuard’s investigation.

Biden: ‘Facebook is killing people’

President Biden last week accused Facebook and other social media platforms of “killing people” by spreading misinformation about vaccines and the coronavirus. His spokesperson had also come out and said the platforms weren’t doing enough to combat the misinformation.

Facebook responded swiftly with data showing that they have been supporting the president’s vaccination campaign and that they have taken action against misinformation pages. The New York Times published an analysis that challenged this response with data from other organizations.

All of this controversy falls within a context of criticism from Republicans and right-leaning organizations that social media platforms are censoring content that doesn’t meet the politically correct standards of so-called mainstream media.

The business model

The truth is, sensationalism and news content that promotes hate, fear, anger, and conspiracies have always been a reliable way to attract viewers and readers. The Macedonian websites that promoted polarization and conspiracies were a great business as well as an effective propaganda tool. And in the US, one misinformation entrepreneur found it much more profitable to promote conspiracies than fact-based information.

In a study of videos about vaccines and climate change, researchers found that conspiracy theories attracted much more traffic than videos based on scientific research. We human beings are programmed to respond to messages of potential danger and threats. Profiteers and propagandists on the web take advantage of that.

More From The Fix: Facebook blocks news in Australia. A ban with global implications

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

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