Facebook Steps Up Efforts Against Vaccine Conspiracies, Hate Speech

A protester holds a Q sign while waiting to enter a campaign rally for President Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Aug. 2, 2018. Facebook began restrict QAnon posts this past summer but stopped short of banning the right-wing conspiracy movement outright. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

(CN) — On the same morning Facebook announced it will begin removing misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines on both its Facebook and Instagram platforms, the media giant confirmed Thursday that it is making algorithm changes to crack down on hate speech.

Dedicated to deleting language it considers “the worst of the worst,” the so-called WoW Project involves the re-engineering of Facebook’s automated moderation systems to better flag slurs hurled at “Blacks, Muslims, people of more than one race, the LGBTQ community and Jews.”

“We know that hate speech targeted towards underrepresented groups can be the most harmful, which is why we have focused our technology on finding the hate speech that users and experts tell us is the most serious,” Facebook spokeswoman Sally Aldous said in a statement. “Over the past year, we’ve also updated our policies to catch more implicit hate speech, such as content depicting Blackface, stereotypes about Jewish people controlling the world, and banned Holocaust denial.”

The Washington Post was the first to report on the project, having gained access to internal documents.

It said the early stages of work involve marking slurs against whites or men as “low-sensitivity,” though previously comments like “Men are trash” or “Americans are dumb” were treated with the same urgency as slurs aimed at groups more likely to be the target of hate speech.

The change is a reaction to public outcry for better regulation. In the midst of the George Floyd protests this year, big-name companies like Coca-Cola and Unilever were amomg more than 1,000 advertisers that pull their ads as part of a boycott on Facebook’s handling of hate speech and misinformation.

Aldous said that the project began to roll out in 2020 as a result of the company’s work with external experts and its completion of external research and internal research. She noted that Facebook is able to proactively detect 95% of the content it removes with the algorithm. Despite the new “low sensitivity” rankings, all attacks will still be removed if reported, she noted.

Facebook had noted only weeks earlier that it would begin including the prevalence of hate speech on Facebook as part of a quarterly report on its enforcement of community standards.

There was no mention of the WoW Project, however, in the Thursday announcement about vaccine-awareness initiatives.

“Since it’s early and facts about Covid-19 vaccines will continue to evolve, we will regularly update the claims we remove based on guidance from public health authorities as they learn more,” Facebook said.

More than 13 million Americans have been infected with the novel coronavirus as of Thursday, and more than 270,000 have died, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. 

In addition to targeting disinformation, the social media giant said it will issue a ban on companies utilizing exploitative tactics for medical face masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and Covid-19 test kits.

“This is another way that we are applying our policy to remove misinformation about the virus that could lead to imminent physical harm. This could include false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines,” Facebook said. “For example, we will remove false claims that Covid-19 vaccines contain microchips, or anything else that isn’t on the official vaccine ingredient list.” 

Facebook had banned ads in October that discouraged vaccinations, but anti-vax posts were left alone.

Now it says it will take down conspiracy theories about vaccines that have been proven false, “like specific populations are being used without their consent to test the vaccine’s safety.”

Enforcement of the policy will only happen though when there is more widely accepted, public information concerning the vaccines. Facebook paired its announcement on the disinformation crackdown with million-dollar grants and donations toward healthcare workers, Covid-19 relief efforts, and small businesses facing economic uncertainty during the pandemic. 

The United Kingdom approved the mass use of a coronavirus vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech on Wednesday, becoming the first Western nation to do so and marking a hopeful turning point in the pandemic. That same day, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered that the country’s doctors and teachers be vaccinated as soon as next week with Sputnik V, a vaccine that has not yet been stamped as effective or safe through the completion of advanced studies.

The last few weeks have also seen Pfizer and Moderna both seeking emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for their respective vaccines. 

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