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Warner presses Zuckerberg to tackle vaccine misinformation on Facebook, Instagram

Warner presses Zuckerberg to tackle vaccine misinformation on Facebook, Instagram
© Greg Nash

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFacebook board decision on Trump ban pleases no one Schumer works to balance a divided caucus's demands Senate Intel vows to 'get to the bottom' of 'Havana syndrome' attacks MORE (D-Va.) on Friday pressed Facebook to do more to combat the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on both its platform and Instagram. 

In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergBipartisan attorneys general urge Facebook to scrap planned Instagram for kids Hillicon Valley: Broadband companies funded fake net neutrality comments, investigation finds | Twitter rolls out tip feature | Google to adopt 'hybrid work week' Oversight Board achieving what government cannot MORE, Warner detailed his concerns that the social media giant is not doing enough to get a handle on the increasing tide of misleading information around the safety of the vaccines. 

“Anti-vaccination groups and other health conspiracy groups have long utilized – and been enabled by – Facebook’s platforms to disseminate misinformation,” Warner wrote. “Studies show a rapid increase in the spread of health misinformation online since the start of the pandemic.”

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Warner noted that recent top-ranked search results on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, for the phrase “covid vaccine” are anti-vaccine accounts. He also warned of recent findings from the Center for Countering Digital Hate that Instagram’s algorithm may be pushing misleading and harmful COVID-19 related content to users, comparing the consequences of this to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. 

“There are real-world consequences when harmful misinformation is allowed to run rampant online, and I am concerned that Instagram – a platform which has generally escaped the level of scrutiny directed at Facebook, itself – is similarly enabling the spread of harmful misinformation that could hinder COVID-19 mitigation efforts and, ultimately, result in lives lost,” Warner wrote.

The senator asked that Zuckerberg respond to questions around procedures in place to filter out misinformation from Instagram’s algorithm, how often he is briefed on misinformation on both Facebook and Instagram, and whether the company would provide free advertising for state and local health authorities working to combat misleading health information.  

A spokesperson for Facebook told The Hill in a written statement Friday night that "working with leading health organizations, we've updated our policies to remove millions of pieces of misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines from Facebook and Instagram–including 2 million since February alone--and take stronger action against accounts that break our COVID-19 and vaccine rules."

"We’ve also labeled more than 167 million pieces of COVID-19 content rated false by our fact checking partners, and now are rolling out labels to any post that discusses vaccines," the spokesperson added. "But since research shows that the best way to combat vaccine hesitancy is to connect people to reliable information from health experts, we’ve connected over 2 billion people to resources from health authorities. We know that conversations about vaccines tend to be nuanced, so we’re continuing to work with health experts to make sure that our approach and our policies are in the right place."

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The letter was sent the day after Zuckerberg testified before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on the topic of misinformation on Facebook, particularly around COVID-19 and the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. 

Zuckerberg detailed Facebook’s efforts to combat coronavirus vaccine misinformation on both Facebook and Instagram in his prepared testimony, noting that “we have made fighting misinformation and providing people with authoritative information a priority for the company.”

Steps the company has taken to tackle misinformation include creating a COVID-19 Information Center on both Facebook and Instagram, removing around 12 million pieces of misleading content around the COVID-19 pandemic, banning accounts spreading misinformation, and removing ads that might create “panic” around the virus, according to Zuckerberg. 

Despite these steps, Warner on Friday wrote that he was “deeply concerned” that Facebook’s recent efforts to address misinformation were not enough in the face of an ongoing pandemic. 

“Health misinformation on social media platforms like Facebook is a serious threat to COVID-19 mitigation efforts and could ultimately prolong this public health emergency,” Warner wrote. “Given the urgency and severity of these consequences, I appreciate your prompt attention to this matter.”

-Updated at 10:05 p.m.