It’s been clear ever since the emergence of a resistance movement to COVID-19 public health measures that the insanely irrational, anti-science conspiracism and misinformation that fueled it was primarily being generated on social media, as has the subsequent violence it has engendered. And as the largest of all social media platforms—and the company most inclined to disingenuous half-measures and denialism when dealing with the toxic environments they create—Facebook has been the greatest wellspring of this informational and cultural pollution, and consequently one of the primary causes of our inability to end the pandemic.
Facebook’s role in spreading COVID-19 denialism is the subject of a fresh study from the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, which explores in detail both how large the audience for this extremist disinformation has grown, as well as how it functions as a radicalization nexus for other far-right ideologies. Moreover, as NBC News’ Ben Collins reports, in recent weeks the antivax/pro-ivermectin Facebook groups have grown so radicalized that they are urging people who contract COVID-19 to avoid hospital intensive care units and instead medicate themselves with “vigilante” treatments.
The social media giant, the IREHR report concludes, “has become an epicenter of COVID denial activism,” despite its widely touted efforts to counter its spread. The study found that most of this denialism is spread through Facebook groups; researchers examined thousands of these groups, both public and private, and cataloged such details as membership, events, videos, posts, and ads. It focused on Facebook because of its singular reach.
The research team documented 1,732 COVID denial groups active on Facebook, with a combined membership of 2,445,602 participants. They are spread across all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and regionally distributed relatively evenly.
“More than other platforms, COVID denial activity on Facebook has transitioned into real-world clashes,” the study finds. “Violence is increasingly common at real-world COVID denial events organized on Facebook. These forums have also become fruitful radicalization and recruiting grounds for far-right groups.”
The violence produced by the denialism has become a global phenomenon. The most recent incident involved a man in Toronto, Canada, who punched a nurse five times in the face after she vaccinated his wife without his permission.
“When we’re feeling stressed, we need a target of that stress. For a long time, initially, the target might have been COVID,” Dr. Aditi Nerurkar of Harvard Medical School told Collins. “But now, it’s no longer that. With the delta variant, and the stress of it has been so great that we are now no longer even looking at the virus and saying, ‘That is our common enemy,’ which is really how it should be. Instead, they’re starting to target people, the messengers—nurses and doctors.”
Collins describes how inadequate Facebook’s response to the spread of the disinformation has been: “Facebook bans explicit antivaxx groups, but they don't ban groups for quack ‘cures’ that antivaxxers push instead,” he writes. “So in the last couple of months, Ivermectin groups have become the new hubs for antivaxx messaging … The number of people in these ivermectin groups have exploded.”
The IREHR report describes how there have been two waves of COVID denialism: The first, in August 2020, when there were 1,186 denialist groups with over 3 million members.
Most of these groups focused, at least in name, on ending COVID-19 health regulations and “reopening” the economy. But, don’t let the name fool you. Many of the “ReOpen” groups did not stick to the issue of the timing of ending COVID health measures. Instead, many “ReOpen” groups, particularly those that remained in 2021, expanded their portfolios and became distribution points for a wide range of COVID denialism—from COVID conspiracies to anti-mask mobilizations to anti-vaxxer activism.
The second wave of COVID denial groups on Facebook emerged this summer, just as the Delta variant of the virus began to spread across the nation. The IREHR research team found 910 new groups with 649,205 combined members formed on Facebook in the past year, 718 of those were created in 2021, while 269 formed in August 2021 alone.
Most of these new groups (499 groups with 314,476 members) center around anti-masker activism—from pushing schools to prevent children from wearing masks, lobbying to stop local mask measures, and attacking businesses that make masks mandatory.
The second wave of COVID denialism organized on Facebook has not yet crested. New COVID denial groups are popping up on Facebook every day. This report contains only data up until late August 2021. However, the problem continues to multiply on Facebook.
Facebook—whose criteria for determining what to remove and what to permit are, as IREHR details, highly dubious at best—has claimed to have taken measures to combat COVID misinformation, none of which appear to have had any effect. Among these is attaching warning labels to posts that may be spreading disinformation.
But as IREHR observes: “Warning labels may work for the vaccine-hesitant, but they do nothing for the ideologically hardened activists who have been fighting against COVID-19 health and safety measures for over a year. For individuals already drawn into the expanding world of COVID denial Facebook groups, the warning labels on COVID misinformation seem to be about as successful as Parental Advisory stickers were in deterring kids listening to hip hop in the 90s. Not only does the label appear to attract immediate attention to the labeled piece, but it also fuels the COVID denialist victim complex. Members of these groups will often angrily lash out at Facebook (on Facebook) for ‘unfairly’ targeting them or that Facebook is part of the conspiracy to keep information hidden.”
Reality, however, has its own way of intruding on conspiracy theories, particularly the reality of the pandemic, as the vast majority of recent COVID hospitalizations have been among unvaccinated people, most of whom refuse the vaccine because of disinformation transmitted through social media.
Recently among anti-vaccination Facebook groups, Collins observes, the increasing number of hospitalizations has led people to adopt a “makeshift protocol” of “alternative therapies.” This protocol includes not only consuming ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine—though studies have established that neither has any recognizable effect on COVID—but also gargling iodine and inhaling nebulized hydrogen peroxide.
These same true believers have developed a set of directions for evading ICU care. Their motives involve a set of conspiracy theories claiming that hospitals are deliberately killing their COVID patients with ventilators and remdesivir.
The most insidious effect of this coagulation of anti-vaccination hysteria and far-right politics is that it has become a massive recruitment and radicalization center for extremist and antidemocratic ideologies, particularly white nationalists and the “Patriot” movement. As IREHR observes:
The ongoing and active engagement of far-right groups in COVID denialism, and an extensive set of insulated Facebook groups built around these themes, create an environment rich for expanding radically anti-democratic ideas into these online networks. As such, the posts by members of these groups include far-right conspiracy theories, anti-immigrant themes, anti-Muslim ideas, reactionary racist frameworks, and calls to civil war and revolution.
The study features a number of recommendations for combatting the viral spread of this extremist disinformation, including deplatforming offenders, ending denialist ad buys, increasing the company’s transparency, and undertaking a congressional investigation of the problem. Most of all, it recommends that individual citizens do their part: “Whether through your union, your local human rights group, your school, your religious institution, neighbors, or other organization, unite with others to take a stand.”