Facebook will remove misinformation on COVID-19 vaccines, including around safety and side effects

“Misinformation about vaccines, about the safety and serious side effects, about the efficacy of the vaccines or the ingredients or the vaccines will be removed. So claims that the COVID-19 vaccine contains aluminium, which can cause harm, would be violating, and we would remove it,” Alice Budisatrijo, who handles Misinformation Policy on Facebook, told  indianexpress.com during a media call.

The social network was fielding media queries on how it fights misinformation and whether it would ban content, which claimed that certain ingredients in the COVID-19 vaccine could cause harm.

Facebook has revealed in the past that nearly 12 million pieces of Covid-19 misinformation were removed between March and October 2020, while around 167 million pieces of content had a warning label applied in relation to Covid-19 misinformation between the same period.  Incidentally, Facebook executives claimed that nearly 95 per cent of the time people who saw warning labels around COVID-19 misinformation did not click through the links and were hence not exposed to false information.

But Budisatrijo admitted that the company still has to ramp up on the implementation of the policy around Covid-19 misinformation, adding that considering Facebook has 2 billion users and hence removing this kind of content can be a challenge.

“Even with the combination of artificial intelligence and the human reviewers that we have all over the world, we can never 100% guarantee that content that violates our policies is not on the platform,” she added.

Facebook typically removes misinformation which can lead to real world violence, or physical harm, particularly stuff linked to ethnic or religious tensions. It says it has been removing this kind of content since 2018. It also removes content or videos which are manipulated or rely on deep fakes, which are created using artificial intelligence and designed to deliberately mislead people. In 2020, it also introduced policies that prohibit violence-inducing conspiracy networks such as QAnon. It also prohibits content which is linked to voter suppression.

But the company views its community standards as a living document, which constantly evolves to keep pace with changing online behaviours. Hence the policy around misinformation was extended to Covid-19 in 2020.

Facebook says it has removed Covid-19 misinformation that contributes to physical harm, including false cures, treatments, false information about the availability of essential services, such as hospitals, and severity of the outbreak.

“We’re focused on claims that if somebody relies on the misinformation, it makes them more likely to get sick or not get the right treatment. And then we also prohibit false claims related to COVID vaccines, now that we know the COVID vaccines are starting to get approved and rolled out in many countries. So claims about the safety, efficacy, serious side-effects, ingredients and conspiracy theories about the vaccines, we remove them as well,” Budisatrijo said.

Regarding censoring or banning of politicians on the platform and whether Facebook would adopt a similar stance in other countries such as India as it had taken for former US president Donald Trump, the executive said that no politician was exempt from Facebook’s community standards, including policies on violence and incitement. But she also clarified that Donald Trump was banned from the platform for inciting violence, a much more serious charge than just posting misinformation.

“When it comes to fact checking we believe that content from politicians, people should be able to see, they should know when their politicians are saying, especially in democratic societies. So as a company, we should not be censoring what they post on our platforms. If we allow politicians to be fact checked, we actually reduce the distribution of their content on the platform,” she said. However, Facebook does remove content from politicians, if it violates community standards and can anything that could lead to imminent offline risk.

But Facebook’s stance towards how it handles content by politicians, especially in countries other than the USA, has been criticised.  For instance, in India, reports by the Wall Street Journal showed that Facebook had been hesitant in removing content and posts by Indian politicians from the BJP even though they clearly violated the company’s policy on hate speech.

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