Across North America, the flu season has been the worst in years.
Compounding the problem is that this year’s flu vaccine isn’t as a great a match for H3N2, 2017-18’s nasty flu strain, as would be ideal. (It takes so long to make the world’s supply of flu vaccine that decisions about what strain to target the vaccine have to be made many months in advance.)
The dangers posed by influenza — to the young and elderly, but also sometimes to fit and healthy young adults — aren’t new. The flu epidemic of 1918 killed more people than the First World War, after all.
What is new, and making public health officials nervous, is the intersection of anti-vaxxers, fake news, and the role of platforms like Facebook in spreading vaccine-hostile fake news.
Last week, we looked at how a fake anti-vax story on Your News Wire (CDC Doctor: ‘Disastrous’ Flu Shot Is Causing Deadly Flu Outbreak) got hundreds of thousands of Facebook engagements in mid-January.
But for the 55,000-odd people who have liked or followed Your News Wire’s Facebook page, the diet of anti-vax fake news is relentless:
- Feb. 9: Dallas Man Has Fingers And Toes Removed After Receiving Flu Shot (He did, but due to the flu, not the shot)
- Feb. 7: Bill Gates’ Former Doctor Says Billionaire ‘Refused To Vaccinate His Children’ (This is debunked, and in any case Gates has donated a vast fortune to vaccination)
- Jan. 27: Trump Warns Flu Shots Are The Greatest ‘Scam’ In Medical History (There’s no evidence he said this)
In any case, you get the idea.
At InfoWars, Alex Jones beats a similar drum, telling his readers on Jan. 29 that ” … The mainstream press, with non-stop pro-vaccination propaganda, is colluding with the medical establishment and governments to silence critics.”
All of this makes people who pay attention to infectious disease uneasy.
“Vaccines are one of the most important scientific inventions of all time,” vaccination experts Heidi Larson and Peter Piot wrote in January. “Yet these vital public-health tools are under threat from growing public mistrust in immunization and the rise of so-called ‘fake news’ drowning out expert voices.”
Why does anti-vax messaging spread on Facebook? Well, when you look at how search works, it isn’t surprising.
Here’s how Facebook responded to a neutral search for “vaccination” just now in recommended pages:
And in recommended groups:
Try it yourself.
So what is the appeal of an anti-vax niche for sites like Your News Wire?
Well, as we saw, the odd one goes viral (in the electronic sense, not the medical sense) and there’s money to be made in that. (The fake CDC flu story was #12 for engagements on all of Facebook for the third week of January, which should cause some sober reflection about how the changes to Facebook’s algorithm are working out so far.)
But another thing we need to pay attention to, as Think Progress pointed out, is that Your News Wire ” … points to Russian propaganda outlets, including RT, as both a model and a source. Researchers in the European Union identified the site as a ‘proxy’ for Russian disinformation.”
This raises a second possibility.
People who oppose vaccination are more likely to believe other conspiracy theories, an Australian study found. Anti-vaxxers also more often held that ” … Princess Diana was murdered; that the U.S. government knew about the 9/11 attacks in advance and allowed them to happen; that a shadowy group of elites is plotting to create a new world order; and that there was an elaborate plot to assassinate President John F. Kennedy that has been covered up.”
So if your niche is Antivax Fake News Central, you’ve gathered an audience of tens of thousands of people who are predisposed to believe conspiracy theories. Something to keep an eye on.
In fake news news:
- The Daily Beast reports on Redfish, a Berlin-based media startup that’s largely staffed by people with a professional background in Russian state media. “Redfish’s aggressively “grassroots” branding comes amid a more covert and recently exposed Russian effort to infiltrate left-of-center media,” it observes.
- Twitter took down hundreds of Russian-linked propaganda videos on Vine — after they were asked about them by CNN this week, and after they had millions of views.
- Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week told Facebook to do more to curb fake news on its platform, or face action by regulators, the Star reports. (Transparency in political advertising would be more useful, and much more achievable — Facebook has made some baby steps in this direction but could do much more.)
- A thread at the Sleeping Giants Twitter account argues that ” … Social media companies have no idea what they’ve built. And now that they’ve all gone haywire, they have no f*ing idea how to fix it.” (Asterisk ours.)
- That’s been obvious for a while, and a story by Global’s Maham Abedi reinforces the point. She explains how Facebook users in the U.S., trying to stop the spread of a child porn video on Facebook Messenger accidentally made it go viral instead. “The video was accompanied by a message urging people to share it, in hopes of finding the man involved,” she explains. Police urge people not to do this, pointing out that they would be breaking the law themselves.
- The Russian state tolerates cybercriminals — so long as they operate outside the country, Slate explains.
- The Chicago Sun-Times has reinstated film critic Richard Roeper, who boosted his Twitter following by buying about 50,000 bots. Under an agreement with the paper, Roeper deleted his Twitter account, which had about a quarter of a million followers, most of them presumably live humans. “Roeper is genuinely contrite — aware, now, that these purchases were improper,” the paper said in a statement. They didn’t have a policy about this before, and now they do: “The Sun-Times will implement a policy to clarify what we thought was obvious — that journalists should not pay to acquire followers on social media.”
- YouTube says it will start labelling videos produced by government-funded broadcasters, at least for viewers in the United States. Mashable points out that the policy applies not only to state broadcasters like RT, but also to editorially independent public broadcasters like PBS, the BBC or the CBC: “Few would argue against having more information about where a news source’s funding comes from. But this particular move brings with it the possibility of doing more damage than it repairs.” Here’s what U.S. YouTube users see when they view a video on the CBC News YouTube channel:
- There is a direct line between the release of the Nunes memo and Russian online propaganda promoting a #releasethememo meme, Molly McKew charges in Politico: ” … Computational propaganda — defined as “the use of information and communication technologies to manipulate perceptions, affect cognition, and influence behavior” — has been used, successfully, to manipulate the perceptions of the American public and the actions of elected officials.” Long read, worth your time.
- In Buzzfeed, Craig Silverman focuses on Tumblr’s fake news problem. “While Facebook and Twitter continue to face intense public and congressional pressure over the activity from trolls working for the Russian Internet Research Agency, Tumblr has somehow managed to escape scrutiny,” he writes. Silverman’s reporting includes a detail of 21st-century journalism: “Tumblr and its parent company, Oath, did not reply to multiple emails with questions from BuzzFeed News. Despite not responding, tracking software shows the emails were opened more than 290 times, and the included links were clicked more than 70 times.”