Facebook said this week that it’s releasing tools designed to help its social network’s users find authoritative information about COVID-19 vaccines.
CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post on the company’s Newsroom blog that the tech firm will release utilities in Facebook-owned apps — including Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram — that connect people with information about how and when to schedule a vaccination appointment. The tools are intended to help users find nearby vaccination locations and will have information such as vaccination-site contact details, links to how to make an appointment, and, if available, hours of operation.
Data for the new utilities is provided by VaccineFinder, a site developed by Boston’s Children’s Hospital, and available on Facebook’s Coronavirus Information Center site. The company will also make the information center available on Facebook-owned Instagram. Facebook says the site will soon be available in 71 different languages.
The tech firm is also providing localized information about COVID-19 cases and vaccination deployment in over 200 countries and territories via a COVID-19 map and dashboard. Data is “nearly real time” and supplied by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Maryland and is intended to help public officials and policymakers better understand concerns and trends about the vaccine throughout the world.
Facebook says they are attempting to combat COVID-19 disinformation and misinformation by amplifying “credible health information” from international health organizations including the World Health Organization, NGOs such as the International Medical Corps, and global governing bodies including the European Union and the African Union. The social network is also adding informational labels to posts that could increase vaccine hesitancy.
Facebook’s data tools will help medical professionals refer patients to a valuable source of credible information about the vaccine, said Dr. Hala Sabry, a physician and founder of the Physician Mother Group, who has helped mothers and families struggling with COVID-19.
“I think that the scale of misinformation and disinformation over the last year has been more than any time in my career,” said Dr. Sabry. Facebook’s new tools can prevent harm by helping the average Facebook user “know the difference between a good resource and a false resource, or [a resource] that’s not pro-science.”
Facebook’s announcements come as the tech giant faces mounting criticism over their sluggish response to COVID-19 disinformation. In December, Facebook banned misleading information about COVID-19, and in February of this year the company expanded its restrictions to include misleading ads. The company also removed over a million posts related to false cures treatments because they could lead to “imminent harm.”
In an interview with CBS News, Facebook’s Chief Product Officer Chris Cox acknowledged that disinformation remains a challenge for the social network, but said that the new tools will help curb the spread of.
“[Misinformation] is certainly something we’re taking very seriously,” said Cox. “There’s a lot of information out there about COVID, and there’s a lot of questions about COVID. We took the step, as you know, of taking a stand that for anything that was a viral piece of misinformation or a hoax spreading misinformation about COVID, we were going to work with fact-checkers to identify those and that we were going to take it down to remove it from our platforms.”
The social network has been a target for disinformation throughout the pandemic. Last spring the company yanked a misleading video called “Plandemic” after the clip accumulated millions of views and interactions. The conspiracy group QAnon pushed the hashtag “scamdemic” across private Facebook groups and pages. Several of these pages are still active. A recent report by the Washington Post found that even small groups of coordinated users, including QAnon and other conspiracy groups, can fuel the spread of disinformation that leads to vaccine hesitancy.
Cox is optimistic about Facebook’s battle with COVID-19 disinformation.
“The thing we’re paying attention to and what we’ve learned from all of our research here and from public health experts is the most important thing you can do is find as many of those posts as possible,” Cox said. “Let’s forget about what some would call misinformation and some would call a debate, and just being there with authoritative information in every instance. And that’s what we’re talking about today is having authoritative, informational labels that help people get access to good information.”
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