By Ethan Zuckerman
Leaked internal documents suggest Facebook – which recently renamed itself Meta – is doing far worse than it claims at minimizing Covid-19 vaccine misinformation on the Facebook social media platform.
Online misinformation about the virus and vaccines is a major concern. In one study, survey respondents who got some or all of their news from Facebook were significantly more likely to resist the Covid-19 vaccine than those who got their news from mainstream media sources.
As a researcher who studies social and civic media, I believe it’s critically important to understand how misinformation spreads online. But this is easier said than done. Simply counting instances of misinformation found on a social media platform leaves two key questions unanswered: How likely are users to encounter misinformation, and are certain users especially likely to be affected by misinformation? These questions are the denominator problem and the distribution problem.
The Covid-19 misinformation study, “Facebook’s Algorithm: a Major Threat to Public Health”, published by public interest advocacy group Avaaz in August 2020, reported that sources that frequently shared health misinformation — 82 websites and 42 Facebook pages — had an estimated total reach of 3.8 billion views in a year.
At first glance, that’s a stunningly large number. But it’s important to remember that this is the numerator. To understand what 3.8 billion views in a year means, you also have to calculate the denominator. The numerator is the part of a fraction above the line, which is divided by the part of the fraction below line, the denominator.
Getting some perspective
One possible denominator is 2.9 billion monthly active Facebook users, in which case, on average, every Facebook user has been exposed to at least one piece of information from these health misinformation sources. But these are 3.8 billion content views, not discrete users. How many pieces of information does the average Facebook user encounter in a year? Facebook does not disclose that information.
Market researchers estimate that Facebook users spend from 19 minutes a day to 38 minutes a day on the platform. If the 1.93 billion daily active users of Facebook see an average of 10 posts in their daily sessions – a very conservative estimate – the denominator for that 3.8 billion pieces of information per year is 7.044 trillion (1.93 billion daily users times 10 daily posts times 365 days in a year). This means roughly 0.05% of content on Facebook is posts by these suspect Facebook pages.
The 3.8 billion views figure encompasses all content published on these pages, including innocuous health content, so the proportion of Facebook posts that are health misinformation is smaller than one-twentieth of a percent.
Is it worrying that there’s enough misinformation on Facebook that everyone has likely encountered at least one instance? Or is it reassuring that 99.95% of what’s shared on Facebook is not from the sites Avaaz warns about? Neither.
In addition to estimating a denominator, it’s also important to consider the distribution of this information. Is everyone on Facebook equally likely to encounter health misinformation? Or are people who identify as anti-vaccine or who seek out “alternative health” information more likely to encounter this type of misinformation?
Another social media study focusing on extremist content on YouTube offers a method for understanding the distribution of misinformation. Using browser data from 915 web users, an Anti-Defamation League team recruited a large, demographically diverse sample of U.S. web users and oversampled two groups: heavy users of YouTube, and individuals who showed strong negative racial or gender biases in a set of questions asked by the investigators. Oversampling is surveying a small subset of a population more than its proportion of the population to better record data about the subset.
The researchers found that 9.2% of participants viewed at least one video from an extremist channel, and 22.1% viewed at least one video from an alternative channel, during the months covered by the study. An important piece of context to note: A small group of people were responsible for most views of these videos. And more than 90% of views of extremist or “alternative” videos were by people who reported a high level of racial or gender resentment on the pre-study survey.
While roughly 1 in 10 people found extremist content on YouTube and 2 in 10 found content from right-wing provocateurs, most people who encountered such content “bounced off” it and went elsewhere. The group that found extremist content and sought more of it were people who presumably had an interest: people with strong racist and sexist attitudes.
The authors concluded that “consumption of this potentially harmful content is instead concentrated among Americans who are already high in racial resentment,” and that YouTube’s algorithms may reinforce this pattern. In other words, just knowing the fraction of users who encounter extreme content doesn’t tell you how many people are consuming it. For that, you need to know the distribution as well.
Superspreaders or whack-a-mole?
A widely publicized study from the anti-hate speech advocacy group Center for Countering Digital Hate titled Pandemic Profiteers showed that of 30 anti-vaccine Facebook groups examined, 12 anti-vaccine celebrities were responsible for 70% of the content circulated in these groups, and the three most prominent were responsible for nearly half. But again, it’s critical to ask about denominators: How many anti-vaccine groups are hosted on Facebook? And what percent of Facebook users encounter the sort of information shared in these groups?
Without information about denominators and distribution, the study reveals something interesting about these 30 anti-vaccine Facebook groups, but nothing about medical misinformation on Facebook as a whole.
These types of studies raise the question, “If researchers can find this content, why can’t the social media platforms identify it and remove it?” The Pandemic Profiteers study, which implies that Facebook could solve 70% of the medical misinformation problem by deleting only a dozen accounts, explicitly advocates for the deplatforming of these dealers of disinformation. However, I found that 10 of the 12 anti-vaccine influencers featured in the study have already been removed by Facebook.
Consider Del Bigtree, one of the three most prominent spreaders of vaccination disinformation on Facebook. The problem is not that Bigtree is recruiting new anti-vaccine followers on Facebook; it’s that Facebook users follow Bigtree on other websites and bring his content into their Facebook communities. It’s not 12 individuals and groups posting health misinformation online – it’s likely thousands of individual Facebook users sharing misinformation found elsewhere on the web, featuring these dozen people. It’s much harder to ban thousands of Facebook users than it is to ban 12 anti-vaccine celebrities.
This is why questions of denominator and distribution are critical to understanding misinformation online. Denominator and distribution allow researchers to ask how common or rare behaviors are online, and who engages in those behaviors. If millions of users are each encountering occasional bits of medical misinformation, warning labels might be an effective intervention. But if medical misinformation is consumed mostly by a smaller group that’s actively seeking out and sharing this content, those warning labels are most likely useless.
Getting the right data
Trying to understand misinformation by counting it, without considering denominators or distribution, is what happens when good intentions collide with poor tools. No social media platform makes it possible for researchers to accurately calculate how prominent a particular piece of content is across its platform.
Facebook restricts most researchers to its Crowdtangle tool, which shares information about content engagement, but this is not the same as content views. Twitter explicitly prohibits researchers from calculating a denominator, either the number of Twitter users or the number of tweets shared in a day. YouTube makes it so difficult to find out how many videos are hosted on their service that Google routinely asks interview candidates to estimate the number of YouTube videos hosted to evaluate their quantitative skills.
The leaders of social media platforms have argued that their tools, despite their problems, are good for society, but this argument would be more convincing if researchers could independently verify that claim.
As the societal impacts of social media become more prominent, pressure on the big tech platforms to release more data about their users and their content is likely to increase. If those companies respond by increasing the amount of information that researchers can access, look very closely: Will they let researchers study the denominator and the distribution of content online? And if not, are they afraid of what researchers will find?
Ethan Zuckerman is Associate Professor of Public Policy, Communication, and Information at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Dennis C Rathsam says
Facebook, is controlled by democrate Zuckerburg. He has improperly donated more money illegally to the democratic party. Enough to sway the past ellection. After many trips to capital hill, & getting grilled by congrees, he continues to lie & cheat.Who made this man king? why does he get away with all this crap? He blockes conservitives, yet the taliban can speak freely on his website. Zuckerburg is a socialist. He,s trying to destroy America from within….I dont use facebook, never have, never will. I suggest you do the same…He,s stealing & saving all your information….for who? China, Russia,? I cant wait for the day they put him in jail for treason.D
The dude says
I don’t speak gibberish… can you translate this for me?
Nobody forces any of you morons to use Facebook and, in fact, when you signed up for Facebook you implicitly agreed to allow Zuckerberg to gather data on your online activities… it’s in the user agreement that you agreed to when you checked the box that said “I read and agree with Facebook’s user terms”. So no data is being “stolen” from you… at all. You traded your data and privacy rights for the ability to spread and receive lies as you go out into the online world yell at the clouds.
Anyway… from what I can tell from your rant full of horrible spelling and improper punctuation… we both feel the same about Zuckerberg, although for very different reasons.
He has allowed you and yours way too much latitude, calling blatant lies and disinformation “critical dialogue” and for some reason believing that you and yours can sift through all that detritus and somehow find the truth. When there is many many mountains of evidence that the exact opposite is true.
All you types do is seek out confirmation of your biases and crackpot theories, then stop the second you think you’ve found validation for those “truths” as you “do your own research” on the Facebook.
Tony Mack says
Makes one wonder where some folks get their “facts”.
Zuckerberg is registered to vote in Santa Clara County, California, but does not identify himself as being affiliated with the Republican, Democratic, or any other party, The Wall Street Journal has reported.
“I think it’s hard to affiliate as being either a Democrat or a Republican. I’m pro-knowledge economy,” Zuckerberg said in September 2016.
The social media mogul has met with politicians on both sides of the aisle, including Donald Trump, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, and conservative commentators and journalists.
Zuckerberg himself has contributed to the campaigns of multiple politicians. Both Republicans and Democrats have received political donations from the tech mogul, but Federal Election Commission records indicate that his contributions to individual politicians dried up circa 2014.
Sean Eldridge: Zuckerberg contributed the maximum $5,200 to the Republican House candidate’s campaign committee in 2013. Eldridge is the husband of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, according to the National Journal.
Orrin G. Hatch: Zuckerberg contributed the maximum $5,200 to the Republican senator from Utah’s campaign committee in 2013.
Marco Rubio: Zuckerberg contributed the maximum $5,200 to the Republican senator from Florida’s campaign committee in 2013.
Paul D. Ryan: Zuckerberg contributed $2,600 to the failed 2012 Republican vice presidential nominee and then-House member in 2014.
Charles E. Schumer: Zuckerberg contributed the maximum $5,200 to the Democratic senator from New York’s campaign committee in 2013.
Cory Booker: Zuckerberg contributed $7,800 in 2013 to the Democratic senator who later became a 2020 presidential candidate. Then, for unexplained reasons, Zuckerberg sought and received a full refund.
Nancy Pelosi: Zuckerberg contributed $2,6003 in 2014 to the campaign of the Democratic congresswoman who has twice served as speaker of the House.
John Boehner: Zuckerberg contributed $2,6003 in 2014 to the campaign of the then-Republican House Speaker.
Luis V. Gutiérrez: Zuckerberg contributed $2,6003 in 2014 to the campaign of the then-Democratic congressman.
Some folks just have to spread the hate…Pitiful, really
The dude says
One group above all others enthusiastically ingests and disseminates all the blatant lies and misinformation… our very own Boomers.
Way to go Boomers.
You took what the Greatest Generation built for all ensuing generations, sucked it dry… leaving an empty husk for those who come behind you, and ruined everything you’ve touched along the way, including Facebook and the internets.
Who’s fact checking the fact checkers?
The dude says
People who know the actual facts from fiction.
Thank you “the Dude” and “Tony Mack”. . . excellent posts! Remember, though, not all “Baby Boomers” are the same. . . although, I am certainly alarmed by and ashamed of those extremists who live in the FOX/Facebook cult/alternate reality of trump.