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US senator calls on Facebook to tackle COVID misinformation on its platforms

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By Hebe Campbell
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A file photo shows the Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device in New York
A file photo shows the Instagram app icon on the screen of a mobile device in New York   -   Copyright  Jenny Kane/Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.
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Senate Intelligence Chairman Mark Warner has written a letter to Facebook demanding that the company takes further action to eradicate misinformation about COVID and the vaccine against the virus on its platforms.

In the letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the senator said: "Despite Facebook's commitment to reducing misinformation, the company's execution of its policies is consistently lacking."

"Anti-vaccination groups and other health conspiracy groups have long utilized – and been enabled by – Facebook's platforms to disseminate misinformation. Studies show a rapid increase in the spread of health misinformation online since the start of the pandemic," Warner said in the open letter.

The letter cited a study from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which found that via its algorithm Instagram, owned by Facebook, was suggesting anti-vaccination content as well as content with false information about the pandemic to its users to keep people on the platform for as long as possible.

CCDH investigated the role of Instagram’s algorithm in publishing misinformation, with researchers establishing 73 new Instagram profiles following prescribed lists of accounts and recording what was being recommended to them through the platform’s “explore” and “suggested post” features.

They found that over a two month period, they were recommended over 100 posts containing misinformation.

Misinformation about the pandemic made up 57% of the content and 21% was about vaccinations.

"If you are following wellness and yoga, it will start giving you hardcore anti-vax content, and recommend that you read that and follow those accounts," Founding CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate, Imran Ahmed, told Euronews.

"Worse still, if you are following anti-vax content, it started recommending you QAnon conspiracy theories, election misinformation, white supremacy and antisemitism and vice versa," he added.

"The algorithm was both deepening but broadening peoples extremism," Ahmed said.

Facebook said the study is not representative of the work they have done over the pandemic.

"We share the goal of reducing the spread of misinformation, but this research is 5 months out of date and uses an extremely small sample size of just 104 posts," a spokesperson said in a statement to Euronews.

"This is in stark contrast to the 12 million pieces of harmful misinformation related to vaccines and COVID-19 we’ve removed from Facebook and Instagram since the start of the pandemic."

It comes as the third wave of coronavirus sweeps across Europe, with many countries tightening measures in recent weeks.