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New York Attorney General Letitia James, as part of a coalition of 12 attorneys general, on Wednesday called on Facebook and Twitter to take stronger measures to stop the spread of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) vaccine disinformation being spread by “anti-vaxxers” on their social media platforms.
In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, James and the coalition urge both CEOs to immediately and fully enforce company guidelines against vaccine misinformation in an effort to “prevent needless infection and death and to hasten America’s road to recovery.”
“The science is clear: This vaccine saves lives, which is why I already received my vaccine and why I encourage all New Yorkers to get their vaccine when eligible,” James said. “As we continue to make strides in vaccinating New Yorkers and recovering from the pandemic, it is imperative that every individual has access to this lifesaving vaccine and the science-based facts about it. We must ensure that there are no barriers to individuals receiving their dose, especially those in communities most impacted by the pandemic, including communities of color. Facebook and Twitter must take immediate action to protect New Yorkers and limit any further loss of life as a result of the spread of inaccurate information.”
A press release stated, “The availability of safe and effective vaccines means the end of this pandemic is in sight. But America’s ability to end the pandemic quickly and limit further loss of life depends on broad public acceptance of these vaccines. False information regarding the safety of COVID-19 vaccines by a small number of individuals lacking medical expertise, and often motivated by their own financial interests, has reached over 59 million followers on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter – threatening to undermine vaccine acceptance and harm the nation’s recovery. ‘Anti-vaxxers’ have used these platforms to disproportionately target people of color, and Black Americans specifically – communities who have already suffered the worst health impacts of the virus and whose vaccination rates are already lagging.”
The AG’s office said this letter cites specific examples where Facebook and Twitter have allegedly failed to enforce their existing guidelines, including:
√ Twitter and Facebook have yet to remove from all their platforms the accounts of prominent “anti-vaxxers” who have repeatedly violated the companies’ terms of service. Digital media research groups estimate that, as of March 10, 12 “anti-vaxxers’ ” personal accounts and their associated organizations, groups and websites are responsible for 65% of public antivaccine content on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
√ Facebook has failed to consistently apply misinformation labels and pop-ups on its pages and groups that discuss vaccines or COVID-19 generally. For example, the company neglected to apply warning labels on dozens of Facebook groups that “anti-vaxxer” Larry Cook created for his followers. At the same time, the company has mistakenly flagged pro-vaccine pages and content in ways that have undermined pro-vaccine public education efforts.
√ Facebook has allowed “anti-vaxxers” to skirt its policy of removing misinformation that health experts have debunked, by failing to prevent them from using video and streaming tools like Facebook Live and sites like Bitchute, Rumble and Brighteon to evade detection.
This letter comes as Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai are set to testify Thursday at a joint hearing of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee and the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives regarding social media’s role in promoting extremism and misinformation.
Joining AG James in sending this letter to Facebook and Twitter are the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.
Last week, Zuckerberg posted the following message on Facebook:
“Today we're launching a global campaign to help bring 50 million people a step closer to getting Covid-19 vaccines.
“We've already connected over 2 billion people to authoritative Covid-19 information. Now that many countries are moving towards vaccinations for all adults, we're working on tools to make it easier for everyone to get vaccinated as well.
“First, we're launching a tool that shows you when and where you can get vaccinated, and gives you a link to make an appointment. This will be in the Covid Information Center, which we'll show people right in their News Feed. We've already seen people use Facebook to find vaccination appointments, so this should enable millions more people to do the same.
“Second, we're bringing the Covid Information Center to Instagram, and we'll show it to people prominently there too.
“Third, we're working with health authorities and governments to expand their WhatsApp chatbots to help people register for vaccines. More than 3 billion messages related to Covid have already been sent by governments, nonprofits and international organizations to citizens through official WhatsApp chatbots, so this update will help with the vaccination effort as well.
“The data shows the vaccines are safe and they work. They're our best hope for getting past this virus and getting back to normal life. I'm looking forward to getting mine, and I hope you are too.”
Twitter recently shared this message:
“As the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines expands, people continue to turn to Twitter to discuss what’s happening and find the latest authoritative public health information.
“In December, we shared updates on our work to protect the public conversation surrounding COVID-19. Starting today, we will begin applying labels to Tweets that may contain misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines, in addition to our continued efforts to remove the most harmful COVID-19 misleading information from the service. Since introducing our COVID-19 guidance, we have removed more than 8,400 Tweets and challenged 11.5 million accounts worldwide.
“We are also introducing a strike system that determines when further enforcement action is necessary. We believe the strike system will help to educate the public on our policies and further reduce the spread of potentially harmful and misleading information on Twitter, particularly for repeated moderate and high-severity violations of our rules.”