Europe’s anti-vaccination group is testing the limits of platforms’ misinformation controls

Troubled by the number of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients showing up at his hospital, the French doctor took to Facebook and uploaded a video urging people to get vaccinated. It was quickly overrun with dozens, then hundreds, then over 1,000 hateful messages from an extremist anti-vaccine group known as V_V. The group, active in France and Italy, has harassed doctors and public health officials, vandalized government offices and attempted to disrupt vaccination clinics.

Alarmed by the abuse of its platform, Facebook launched several accounts linked to the group last December. But that hasn’t stopped V_V, which continues to use Facebook and other platforms and, like many anti-vaccine groups around the world, has expanded its portfolio to include climate change Holocaust denial and anti-democratic messages.

“Let’s get them home, they don’t need to sleep anymore,” read a post from the group. “Fight with us! reads another.

The largely unchecked nature of the attacks on the indisputable health benefits of the vaccine highlights the obvious limitations of a social media company in countering even the most destructive kind of misinformation, especially without a sustained aggressive effort.

Researchers from Reset, a US-based nonprofit, identified more than 15,000 abusive or misinformation-laden Facebook posts from V_V — activity that peaked in the spring of 2022, months after the platform announced his actions against the organization. In a report on V_V’s activities, Reset researchers concluded that its continued presence on Facebook raises “questions about the effectiveness and consistency of Meta’s self-reported intervention.”

Meta, Facebook’s parent company, noted in response that its 2021 actions were never intended to remove all V_V content but to remove accounts that participated in coordinated harassment. After The Associated Press informed Facebook of the group’s continued activities on its platform, it said it deleted 100 more accounts this week.

Meta said it tries to strike a balance between removing content from groups like V_V that clearly violates rules against harassment or dangerous misinformation, while not silencing innocent users. This can be especially difficult when it comes to the controversial issue of vaccines.

“This is a high-conflict space and our efforts continue: Since our initial withdrawal, we have taken numerous actions against attempts to bring this network back,” a spokesperson for Meta told the AP. .

V_V is also active on Twitter, where Reset researchers found hundreds of accounts and thousands of group posts. Many accounts were created soon after Facebook took action on the program last winter, Reset found.

In response to Reset’s report, Twitter said it took enforcement action against several accounts linked to V_V, but did not detail those actions.

V_V has proven particularly resistant to efforts to stop him. Named for the movie V for Vendetta, in which a lonely masked man seeks revenge against an authoritarian government, the group uses fake accounts to evade detection and often coordinates its messages and activities on platforms such as Telegram that don’t have Facebook’s more aggressive moderation policies. .

This adaptability is one of the reasons it was difficult to shut down the group, according to Jack Stubbs, a researcher at Graphika, a data analytics company that tracked V_V’s activities.

“They understand how the internet works,” Stubbs said.

Graphika estimated the group’s membership at 20,000 at the end of 2021, with a smaller core of members involved in its online harassment efforts. In addition to Italy and France, Graphika’s team found evidence that V_V is trying to set up chapters in Spain, the UK, Ireland, Brazil and Germany, where a similar known anti-government movement under the name of Querdenken is active.

Groups and movements such as V_V and Querdenken have increasingly alarmed law enforcement and extremism researchers who say there is evidence that far-right groups are using skepticism about of COVID-19 and vaccines to expand their reach.

Increasingly, these groups are moving from online harassment to action in the real world.

For example, in April, V_V used Telegram to announce plans to pay a €10,000 bounty to vandals who spray-painted the group’s symbol (two red Vs in a circle) on public buildings or vaccination clinics. The group then used Telegram to spread photos of the vandalism.

A month before Facebook took action on V_V, Italian police raided the homes of 17 anti-vaccine activists who had used Telegram to threaten government, medical and media figures over their alleged support of COVID-19[feminine] limitations.

Social media companies have struggled to respond to a wave of misinformation about vaccines since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this week, Facebook and Instagram suspended Children’s Health Defense, an influential anti-vaccine organization led by Robert Kennedy Jr.

One reason is the delicate balance between moderating harmful content and protecting free speech, according to New York University’s Joshua Tucker, who co-directs NYU’s Center for Social Media and Politics and is Senior Advisor at Kroll, a technology, government and economic consultancy.

Finding the right balance is especially important as social media has become a key source of news and information around the world. Leave too much bad content and users can be misinformed. Remove too much and users will start to mistrust the platform.

“It’s dangerous for society that we’re moving in a direction where no one thinks they can trust the information,” Tucker said.

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