Activists and healthcare professionals are trying to stomp out anti-vaxx info online – but social media algorithms are working against them

Covid misinfo hed
  • Social media algorithms aren’t adequately moderating platforms for misinformation, an expert says.
  • COVID-19 misinformation communities are taking advantage of engagement-driven algorithms to spread their messages on social media.
  • Cracking down on bad content has become close to an “impossible task” for health advocates and social media moderators.
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We might not immediately see it, but we are surrounded by COVID-19 lies on social media. Anti-vaxxers sharing ill-informed opinions of vaccines. Dark net vendors trying to sell fake COVID vaccine cards. Fringe doctors telling people to inject themselves with bleach or horse dewormer. But that’s because something actively fights against our best health interests.

TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are just some platforms that have tried to crack down on COVID falsities – but the companies may be locked in a futile battle with their own algorithms.

The opaque mechanisms are making misinformation content less transparent to global health advocates. At the same time, they keep informative content away from their intended audiences, primarily those straggling on the border of COVID-19 understanding and vaccine hesitancy.

Members of Team Halo, a UN-backed campaign that helps amplify the voices of credible health professionals on social media platforms, have struggled with tackling misinformation online.

“The algorithm-driven platforms are very good at separating audiences,” Dr. Katrine Wallace, an epidemiologist at the University of Illinois School of Public Health, and member of Team Halo told Insider. “I don’t see [misinformation content] as much, but that’s good and bad… we know the demand is still there, it’s probably just not as public.”

Wallace, who publishes content correcting coronavirus misinformation videos on TikTok and Instagram, said health experts rely on secondhand reports from other users that point out misinformation because algorithms stop them from seeing it. Without those reports, misinformation is left unchecked to metastasize, even by the social media companies themselves.

Wallace and several other Team Halo health professionals, whose identities and medical credentials were verified by Insider, said they have had their own reputable, data-supported content suspended and flagged for review by the platforms. When the content is cleared by platform moderators, it receives less page views and exposure, Wallace said. So while algorithms target reputable COVID-19 content, they also leave some misinformation content alone.

Less than 1 in 20 false posts were removed across Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube, even after users had reported the content, according to a 2020 report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

“Much debate about misinformation on social media is about automated algorithms and detection,” the report says. “Even when companies are handed misinformation on a silver platter, they fail to act.”

Health professionals warned companies like Google, Twitter, and Facebook that anti-vaxxers were “weaponizing” their platforms to spread bad information. One NYU study showed misinformation on Facebook got six times more engagement than factual information. Instagram recommendation algorithms also pushed anti-vaxx posts, per a CCDH report.

Some platforms’ proposed remedies have been criticized as “band-aid” solutions, reviewing and removing users on a case-by-case basis, while others just can’t keep up with the rapid spread of bad content.

“People like Team Halo are starting to realize countering misinformation in ‘hand-to-hand combat’ is something that you could spend an infinite amount of time doing and never succeed,” Imran Ahmed, the CEO of CCDH and expert on social media, said in an interview with Insider. “It’s an impossible task.”

Wallace says she has been working to address misinformation on the virus for 18 months.

“It turned out to be a lot more of an arduous task than I had anticipated,” she said.

Social media giants have been secretive about how their algorithms work, and politicians, scientists, and activists are calling on social media companies to take more action against misinformation.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

Insider has previously reached out to, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok about their content moderation processes and how algorithms use keywords to spot possible COVID misinformation, but they did not elaborate about the specific process of detection. These companies do employ a mix of algorithms and human reviewers to moderate their platform for potentially harmful content.