New social-listening research has shown that the growth of anti-vaccination groups on Facebook has jumped by 280% during the COVID-19 pandemic, with the digital rights group that authored the report proposing a policy document to help the government navigate the online quagmire.
Reset Australia is a local affiliate of a global organisation Reset, whose mission is to fight digital harms to democracy and society. The group has developed a policy for public health officials, researchers and journalists to access anonymised data about COVID-19 related content and what is being shared on the subject in private Facebook groups formed for anti-vaxxers or public health sceptics.
“Those who want to tackle misinformation head-on have no idea where to look. They are left to blindly fight false information because it’s tucked away out of sight in algorithm-created corners of the platforms,” Reset Australia executive director Chris Cooper said.
Reset Australia’s proposed policy would force social media companies to generate a real-time list of the most popular URLs shared on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which point to COVID-19 related content. Cooper said that such a list would help Australian public health authorities identify anti-vaccination narratives to inform community engagement responses.
“A live list would begin to quantify the extent of misinformation and help us target appropriate misinformation to disrupt the conspiratorial feedback loop,” he said.
In a new report released today, Reset Australia discussed the online efforts of the Facebook groups like ‘Wake Up Australia’, where links, photos, videos and statuses are published providing false and misleading information about COVID-19 and vaccines.
Social media followings of these kinds of groups spiked during the initial national lockdown, Reset Australia found, with over 177,000 monthly interactions also generated at the height of Melbourne’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Among the common content themes in the 13 Facebook groups that Reset Australia reviewed were:
- the safety and efficacy of vaccines including the promotion of treatments using Ivermectin (201 mentions) and Hydroxychloroquine (601 mentions)
- threats to civil liberties and personal freedoms that lockdowns pose
- mandatory vaccination programmes (1649 mentions)
- the political and economic motives of leading political figures such as Bill Gates (1390 mentions) and Dan Andrews (1592 mentions)
- well-established and novel conspiracy theories such as the ‘The Great Reset’ (927 mentions)
Cooper said the social-listening research demonstrated how social media had ‘supercharged conspiracy theories’ and was pushing people towards misinformation that could seriously undermine public health objectives.
A recent University of Melbourne survey found between October 2020 and February 2021, the percentage of Australians willing to get the COVID-19 jab fell by 8.2% to 66%.
The Reset Australia paper showed ‘a direct correlation between surging anti-vaxx misinformation on Facebook and Australia’s growing vaccine hesitancy’, Cooper added.
“Public Facebook groups are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to track and tracing anti-vaxx and COVID-19 misinformation.
“The real danger of rampant vaccine hesitancy and scientific scepticism is tucked away in algorithm-created bubbles of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, where ideas fester and spread, unseen and unchecked by mainstream conversation,” he said.
Between January 2020 and March 2021 Reset Australia collated data from 13 different public Facebook groups with a combined total of 115,000 followers.
Groups such as established anti-vaccination campaigns, and anti-lockdown style groups including ‘Digital Warfare’, ‘End the Lockdown in Australia’ and the ‘Australian Freedom Alliance’ were analysed. During the 14-month period the number of group followers were recorded as having collectively grown by 280%, while their posts amassed a total of 2.66 million interactions.
Cooper warned that public anti-vaxx groups offered a mere snapshot of some of the more extreme misinformation being shared in private online communities, and often served as gateways to more radical spaces.
“Previously believing the earth is flat or Bill Gates wanted to microchip the entire world would have been socially isolating,” Cooper said.
“But now social media can instantly find you thousands of like-minded people who are eager to reinforce and exacerbate your misguided views.”