COVID has “supercharged” Australian anti-vaxxer and conspiracy theory communities online, digital experts warn, with fears a 300 per cent explosion in membership of such Facebook groups could derail the vaccine rollout.
Even as social media giants crackdown on harmful misinformation, including deleting prominent pages and slapping on new warnings and fact-check labels, critics say dangerous conspiracy theories are still festering in private groups and seeping into the mainstream.
“It’s an invisible problem,” said Chris Cooper, executive director of Reset Australia.
“Our health officials are working blindfolded and don’t have the data that could be useful to their communications strategy.”
Reset Australia is the local arm of the global Reset network, which aims to “counter digital threats to democracy” by raising concerns about online harms.
Over the past year, it monitored 13 Australian Facebook groups which prominently featured misinformation or disinformation tropes around COVID, like anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer sentiment, or virus conspiracy theories.
Some groups were established anti-vaxxer communities. Others were newer groups that sprung up around COVID to protest lockdowns or virus measures.
Reset Australia found these 13 groups alone generated 2.66 million interactions between January 2020 and March 2021, with their total membership increasing 280 per cent to more than 115,000 people.
Mr Cooper said Reset was worried about the effect this may have on vaccine hesitancy.
“What we see in these groups is a tilt toward content that’s either false or harmful, and distorting information around lockdowns and the vaccine,” he told The New Daily.
Some of the groups monitored, which TND chose not to name, were involved in organising large-scale protests in breach of COVID lockdown rules, harassing politicians who supported tough lockdown measures, and spreading debunked harmful claims about vaccines.
Other content included false conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and Daniel Andrews, and promoted unproven drug treatments.
Mr Cooper said Reset didn’t set out to “condemn individuals” in the groups, and stressed freedom of speech was important, but worried that social platforms weren’t doing enough to remove such content.
“What’s concerning to us is this content is being amplified to millions of people, and there’s not much oversight,” he said.
Reset called the growth in such groups over the pandemic a “disturbing” trend, which it claimed showed Facebook’s actions in addressing COVID misinformation were not working.
“Reset Australia’s research shows a direct correlation between surging anti-vaxx misinformation on Facebook and Australia’s growing vaccine hesitancy,” Mr Cooper said.
“Social media has supercharged conspiracy theories and misinformation, pushing some people into echo chambers where false information is all they see.”
He linked the explosion in anti-vaxxer groups to an uptick in vaccine hesitancy among the Australian population.
Mr Cooper pointed to a University of Melbourne poll in February that found 66 per cent of Australians were happy to get the COVID jab, down from 74 per cent in October 2020.
An Essential poll last month found 16 per cent of people said they would “never” get vaccinated against COVID, up from 12 per cent in March.
“We have rising vaccine hesitancy, even amid a clear desire from government for the country to get back to normal. Why is that? Is it linked to the spread of this type of content? That’s something we should look at,” Mr Cooper said.
Reset is pushing for Facebook to publicly share with researchers a ‘Live List’ of data that breaks down the most popular links on its site.
The charity says this would “help Australian public health authorities identify anti-vaccination narratives to inform community engagement responses”.
Facebook removing millions of posts
In a statement, a Facebook spokesperson said the company had removed more than 16 million pieces of “harmful COVID-19 vaccine misinformation” worldwide since the pandemic began, and added warning labels to 167 million others.
Facebook and other social media companies are also prominently serving users with links to official government websites.
“We’re taking down groups that repeatedly share this content, removing related groups from the recommendations we show people, and directing people who search for COVID to credible information from leading health organisations,” Facebook told TND.
“We also provide free, real-time, publicly available CrowdTangle dashboards so that health authorities can see trending COVID-19 content across our apps, including in Australia.”
The federal Department of Health told TND it was also mindful of COVID misinformation online, and was encouraging all Australians to get vaccinated.
The department recently added a fact check section on its website, called ‘Is It True?’, to “answer common questions and misinformation that the community may have”, plus a video series featuring health experts and community leaders.
“These videos cover topics including how vaccines work, safety and approval processes and messaging reinforcing that COVID-19 vaccines are available for everyone in Australia,” a department spokesperson said.
“The communication campaign is continually being updated to respond to the specific stages of the rollout of the Australian vaccination program … Each phase of the campaign is informed by consumer research to ensure it is delivering the messages Australians are seeking to support uptake of the program.”
Department secretary Professor Brendan Murphy is also encouraging people to take the jab.
“The world is still very actively full of COVID and we are always at risk of further outbreaks in Australia. That’s inevitable, given the scale of COVID around the world,” he said last week.
“Please go out and get vaccinated.”
The Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs have undergone rigorous approval testing by the Therapeutic Goods Administration.