DAVE ROSS

UW professor: Vaccine misinformation on Facebook ‘is prolonging this pandemic’

Jul 23, 2021, 1:27 PM
Facebook vaccine misinformation, protest...
Protesters rally against 'mandatory' COVID-19 vaccinations on February 20, 2021 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

President Joe Biden directed criticism at Facebook last week for the proliferation of misinformation related to the COVID-19 vaccine. University of Washington biology professor Carl Bergstrom has been working to combat that misinformation since the start of the pandemic, and believes that this fight could be more important now than ever.

‘Huge public health payoff’ if Facebook were to ban vaccine misinformation

Despite social media platforms having taken steps to curb the spread of misinformation related to the pandemic, it’s continued to spread regardless. That’s driven on Facebook by an algorithm Bergstrom describes as tailor-made to deliver problematic content to its users.

“The platform is designed to keep us enraged — that’s one of the things that keeps us online,” he told KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. “[It’s] technology organized around selling advertisements, agnostic to whether the information being spread is true or false.”

“And right now, it’s failing us badly because, among other things, these algorithms have learned that divisive content is really powerful in terms of keeping people engaged,” he added.

But when it comes to vaccinations, at what point do we stop trying to help people who could find alternative sources of information if they wanted? Or as Dave asks, do we eventually have to accept that it’s a free country, where people are “free to make the wrong choice”?

Bogus COVID-19 info on social media may have sent thousands to hospitals

For Bergstrom, he sees a “civic obligation” in continuing to push back against misinformation spread by platforms like Facebook, especially amid a public health crisis where the consequences of a few people’s choices could be felt by thousands of others.

“We’ve somehow backed ourselves as a society into this corner where misinformation spreads, and disinformation can be injected at a scale that we hadn’t previously imagined,” he noted. “Right now this is a better reason to do it than ever because people are dying, and this is prolonging the pandemic unnecessarily — we could be out of this mess.”

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UW professor: Vaccine misinformation on Facebook ‘is prolonging this pandemic’