Facebook Study Reveals Design Flaws Enabling Spread of COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation
A new study suggests that Facebook’s design flaws have made it unable to control the spread of fake news, particularly regarding COVID-19 vaccines. Despite implementing policies and practices to counter misinformation during the pandemic, Facebook’s efforts have been undermined by the core design features of the platform, according to research published in the journal Science Advances.
Lead author Professor David Broniatowski from George Washington University emphasizes that addressing misinformation requires focusing not only on content and algorithms but also on design and architecture. The study, which is the first scientific evaluation of Facebook’s attempts to remove misinformation, found that removing content or changing algorithms alone is ineffective if it doesn’t address the platform’s underlying functionality.
Although Facebook made significant efforts to remove anti-vaccine content during the pandemic, the study shows that engagement with such misinformation did not decrease and, in some cases, even increased. Moreover, the remaining anti-vaccine content on Facebook became more misinformative, often containing sensationalist false claims about vaccine side effects that were not fact-checked in real-time.
The research team also found that there was collateral damage as pro-vaccine content may have been unintentionally removed due to Facebook’s policies. Overall, vaccine-related content became more politically polarized, exacerbating the challenges in combating health misinformation in public spaces.
The study identified that anti-vaccine content producers utilized the platform more effectively than their pro-vaccine counterparts. Even when Facebook attempted to address vaccine misinformation by adjusting algorithms and removing content, the architecture of the platform hindered these efforts.
Professor Broniatowski likens Facebook’s architecture to that of a building, stating that it is designed to enable people to connect over common interests. However, if the design doesn’t consider public health and safety concerns, it can lead to harm. Changing the architecture of social media platforms could help promote public health and safety by implementing building codes informed by scientific evidence to reduce online harms.
The study suggests that governance strategies should facilitate partnerships between industry, government, and community organizations, similar to how building codes are established. These partnerships would be guided by scientific evidence and practice, aiming to create a safer and more reliable online environment.
In summary, the study’s findings underscore the challenges in combatting vaccine misinformation on social media platforms, particularly on Facebook. To effectively address this issue, it is crucial to not only focus on content and algorithms but also on the design and architecture of these platforms. By implementing evidence-based building codes, social media platforms can contribute to promoting public health and safety in the digital realm.