Facebook study finds overlap between vaccine hesitancy and QAnon

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Early findings from an internal study by Facebook on doubts about the coronavirus vaccine reportedly include an overlap between users expressing skepticism about vaccines and accounts affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Facebook’s internal research is looking at posts that do not fall under its ban on vaccine misinformation but fall in more of a gray area, The Washington Post reported Sunday, citing documents on the study. 

As part of the research, Facebook’s data scientists divided U.S. users, groups and pages into 638 population segments to look at that hold vaccine hesitant beliefs, the Post reported.

Early evidence from the internal findings points to an overlap between the communities that are skeptical of vaccines and those affiliated with the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, according to the Post. 

Facebook had pledged to ban all accounts affiliated with the conspiracy theory in October. 

Users, however, continuously form new QAnon groups, accounts and pages using adversarial tactics that attempt to hide their affiliation with the conspiracy theory, according to Facebook. As Facebook identifies the pages, they are taken down, the company says. 

The early findings from the internal study also reportedly suggest that most of the vaccine hesitant content is coming from a relatively small subset of users. 

The internal study found that just 10 out of the 638 population segments contained half of all vaccine hesitancy on the platform, and in the population segment with the most vaccine hesitancy, only 111 users contributed to half of that hesitancy, according to the Post. 

The document viewed by the Post did not identify how Facebook defined a segment or grouped community but noted that the segments could be at least 3 million people. 

Facebook says it is standard for it to study the types of content on its platforms to understand trends and identify emerging problems to determine action against potentially harmful content. 

The reported study is just one way Facebook has been taking action to combat coronavirus vaccine misinformation amid mounting scrutiny from officials over the handling of such false claims. 

“Since the start of the pandemic, we have partnered with more than 60 global health experts and have studied content related to COVID-19, including vaccines and misinformation, to inform our policies,”  Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever said in a statement. 

Facebook “routinely” studies issues including COVID-19, voting, bias and hate speech to “understand emerging trends to understand emerging trends so we can build, refine, and measure our products,” Lever said. 

“Public health experts have made it clear that tackling vaccine hesitancy is a top priority in the COVID response, which is why we’ve launched a global campaign that has already connected 2 billion people to reliable information from health experts and remove false claims about COVID and vaccines. This ongoing work will help to inform our efforts,” Lever added. 

In February, Facebook said it would remove all debunked claims about the coronavirus vaccine during the pandemic, and on Monday, the company said it had removed 2 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram. 

In a Monday blog post, Facebook also said it would be expanding its efforts to combat coronavirus vaccine misinformation by adding labels to all posts that discuss the vaccines. 

Facebook said it will initially add labels with information from the World Health Organization to posts that discuss the safety of vaccines and in coming weeks will roll out labels for more general posts about the vaccines that will point users to information about them. 

Facebook’s push to update its policy comes after President Biden’s address last week stating that all American adults will be eligible for the vaccine by May 1 at the latest. 

Meanwhile, polling has indicated there will be challenges over vaccine hesitancy — especially among certain populations. 

A PBS NewsHour/NPR/Marist poll released last week found that nearly about 30 percent of Americans overall said they do not plan to get vaccinated. Among men who identify as Republican, the same poll found that nearly half said they have no plans to get the coronavirus vaccine.

Tags COVID-19 vaccine Facebook Joe Biden QAnon Vaccine hesitancy

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