July 26, 2021

Decoder Newsletter: Health Disinformation and Social Media

A sticker promotes the vaccine for COVID-19. Photo by Marisol Benitez via Unsplash.
Margaret Sessa-Hawkins

President Joe Biden may have walked back his comments about social media companies ‘killing people’ by amplifying health disinformation, but questions about platforms’ role in spreading anti-vaccine narratives and how to deal with them, still remain. In this week’s Decoder we explore issues surrounding health disinformation, the upcoming meeting of the Special Commission investigating the January 6th Capitol riots, and why a new antitrust appointment could make waves. The Decoder is a weekly roundup of news about digital deception. Know someone who might be interested? Ask them to sign up!

  • Health disinformation I: As covid cases rise in the US, questions about social media’s role in anti-vaccine narratives — and how to address them — keep swirling. In The New York Times, Max Fisher writes about sketchy firms promoting disinformation, including health disinformation, for clients who can then claim deniability. Thursday, Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Ben Ray Luján (N.M.) attempted to take on the issue of health disinformation with a new bill that would remove tech companies’ immunity under Section 230 if they spread health disinformation. Brian Fung has a good thread on some of the issues with the proposal, and in The Verge, Adi Robertson explains why amending Section 230 to tackle health disinformation is the wrong approach.
  • Health disinformation II: In the New York Times, Sheera Frankel revealed that one problem with tackling health disinformation is Facebook doesn’t actually know how many people see health dis and misinformation on its platform because it  never approved the resources necessary to study the issue. For NBC news, Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins report that anti-vaccine groups are using code words to escape regulation efforts. In the Washington Post, Will Oremus points out that YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms have played a huge role in amplifying health disinformation, and that a better understanding of their algorithms is necessary to address the problem.
  • Health disinformation III: For those interested in an on-the-ground perspective of the consequences of health disinformation, Jessica Glenza and Oliver Laughland have an article in The Guardian looking at what it’s like inside hospitals dealing with vaccine hesitancy, while in The Huffington Post, Jesselyn Cook looks at couples whose marriages are being torn apart by health conspiracy theories. In the New York Times, Sheera Frankel writes about Joseph Mercola, the so-called pioneer of the anti-vaccine movement. And the Washington Post reports that as cases surge, many Republicans — who were previously reluctant to promote the vaccine — are now encouraging Americans to get it.
  • Jan. 6 Commission: The first meeting of the Special Commission investigating the January 6th Capitol riots will take place this week. Rep. Nancy Pelosi vetoed some of Kevin McCarthy’s picks for the commission, as they have spread disinformation about the election. The meeting comes as a new Washington Post poll found that approval of the riots has gone up among some Republicans. On Just Security, Justin Hendrix writes that he would like to see Congress subpoena tech companies for certain key pieces of information, and in Wired, Roger McNamee writes that it’s time for Biden to get tough on tech companies. For the Columbia Journalism Review, Jon Alsop writes about the both-sides-ism reporting on the January 6th Commission, and why it’s flawed.
  • Antitrust: Last week, the Decoder looked at tech companies’ attempts to get Federal Trade Commission chair Lena Khan to recuse herself. This week, similar questions have surfaced about Jonathan Kanter, President Biden’s nominee to run the Justice Department’s antitrust division, as Ben Brody reports in Protocol. In Decode Democracy, Frank Bass and Bergen Smith also report that as Big Tech companies are increasingly staring down the barrel of antitrust actions, the so-called ‘Big Four’ poured $13.4 million into Q2 lobbying.
  • Voter suppression: The Brennan Center has released a new update to its roundup of voter suppression laws that have been passed in statehouses around the country. According to the roundup, 18 states enacted 30 laws to restrict access to voting. In the Washington Post, Philip Bump writes that Republicans’ obsession with only auditing areas that voted for Democrats shows how much disinformation is underpinning the effort. Trump’s PAC, meanwhile, has been raising money under the guise of funding voting audits, but hasn’t spent any money on those efforts.
  • Research: Scott Brennan and Matt Perault of Duke report that there is little evidence the banning of political ads by social media companies prior to the 2020 election was effective at preventing misinformation, and that they likely hurt campaigns with less funding. A new paper from Kishonna Gray and Krysten Stein in Gender and Society looks at digital platforms disproportionately punishing minoritized digital users and misogynoir in social media’s institutional practices. In the Virality Project, Lindsay Hundley and Toni Friedman of the Stanford Internet Observatory look at how anti-vaccine narratives go global. For Lawfare Blog, Ben Kaiser, Jonathan Mayer, and J. Nathan Mathias examine whether warnings about misinformation online actually can be effective.

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