I think that it has become very clear that Facebook is the source of much of the dangerous disinformation that is spreading rapidly across the world. And this can result in real harm. One example is that of Erin Hitchens, a 46-year old woman who died from complications of covid-19 because she and her husband thought the virus was a hoax and so they disregarded all the recommended precautions. Her husband now regrets their foolishness.
A Florida taxi driver, who believed false claims that coronavirus was a hoax, has lost his wife to Covid-19.
Brian Lee Hitchens and his wife, Erin, had read claims online that the virus was fabricated, linked to 5G or similar to the flu.
The couple didn’t follow health guidance or seek help when they fell ill in early May. Brian recovered but his 46-year-old wife became critically ill and died this month from heart problems linked to the virus.
Erin, a pastor in Florida, had existing health problems – she suffered from asthma and a sleeping disorder.
Her husband explained that the couple did not follow health guidance at the start of the pandemic because of the false claims they had seen online.
Brian continued to work as a taxi driver and to collect his wife’s medicine without observing social distancing rules or wearing a mask.
They had also failed to seek help as soon as possible when they fell ill in May and were both subsequently diagnosed with Covid-19.
Brian said he and his wife didn’t have one firm belief about Covid-19. Instead, they switched between thinking the virus was a hoax, linked to 5G technology, or a real, but mild ailment. They came across these theories on Facebook.
The problem with Facebook is that it enables people to forward links to their friends and family and it seems that many people are more likely to believe the stuff they get from people they know, even if the sender has no expertise about the information that they are sending. I closed my Facebook account years ago and even wen I had it, I never used it so my knowledge of this topic is necessarily second-hand.
Avaaz, a global non-profit that tries to combat disinformation on social media, has issued a report that shows how much of a threat Facebook is to global health.
Global health misinformation spreading networks spanning at least five countries generated an estimated 3.8 billion views on Facebook in the last year.
Content from the top 10 websites spreading health misinformation had almost four times as many estimated views on Facebook as equivalent content from the websites of 10 leading health institutions, such as the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The site makes suggestions for what Facebook can do to curb the spread of false information.
Step 1: Correct the Record by providing all users who have seen misinformation with independently fact-checked corrections. This could decrease belief in misinformation by an average of almost 50%.
Step 2: Detox the Algorithm by downgrading misinformation posts and systematic misinformation actors in users’ News Feeds, decreasing their reach by up to 80%.
Facebook has not done either of these things. Although the company says that it is taking other steps to curb the spread of false and hateful speech, such as putting warning labels on some posts, its efforts seem to be grudging and less than wholehearted. It is not hard to see why. Its business model is dependent on the number of people on its sites and the amount of time they spend there and it seems like the Facebook algorithms that take people down a rabbit hole of crazier and crazier information is one of the best ways to achieve that.
In an interview with Bob Garfield of On the Media, Avaaz campaign director Fadi Quran said there are some superspreaders of misinformation on Facebook. He said that just one piece of misinformation, that drinking concentrated alcohol in some form would kill the virus, resulted in about 800 deaths and 6,000 hospitalizations. I had never heard this crackpot theory before, probably because I am not on Facebook, but it astounds me that anyone would actually take such a step. When the president of the US suggests ingesting bleach, it should not be surprising that people are more open to believing in the wildest of remedies. It may be that when people get the same information from different Facebook friends, they believe it, not realizing that all may originate from a single ignorant or even malicious source.
Facebook is a hugely profitable company that is utterly lacking in any ethical sensibilities and it is making money off the suffering and death of thousands of people.