Facebook killed a tool to fight anti-vaxx information because it disproportionately affected conservatives, report says

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Facebook killed a tool to fight anti-vaxx information because it disproportionately affected conservatives, report says
A US woman holds an anti-vaxx poster.Scott Eisen/Getty Images
  • Facebook disabled a "medical-misinformation detector" that was used to flag anti-vaxx misinformation.
  • The team that axed the tool reportedly believed it wasn't fair that conservatives were targeted more.
  • Surveys show that conservatives are far more likely to shun vaccines than other political groups.
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Facebook stopped using a tool that fought anti-vaccine information because it was disproportionately affecting conservative users, MIT Technology Review reported.

The "medical-misinformation detector" had "noticeably reduced the reach of anti-vaccine campaigns," but employees took it offline because it didn't meet the company's standard of fairness, the magazine reported.

The team that took down the detector was led by Joel Kaplan, Facebook's vice president and global public policy and whom the magazine described as the company's "highest-ranking Republican."

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Kaplan's team was following guidelines created by Facebook's Responsible AI team, which required the removal of misinformation on the platform regardless of the users' political orientation, MIT Technology Review said.

But Kaplan's team had interpreted the guidelines to mean that the tool should affect as many liberals or centrists as conservatives, so when the tool flagged more conservative posts, they removed it altogether, the magazine said.

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Insider has contacted Facebook for comment.

Facebook killed a tool to fight anti-vaxx information because it disproportionately affected conservatives, report says
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.REUTERS/Erin Scott/File Photo

"There's no point, then," an unnamed former Facebook AI researcher told MIT Technology Review of the tool, saying that definition of fairness "would have literally no impact on the actual problem."

The researcher said the definition of fairness they were held to "seems to fly in the face of the things that Mark [Zuckerberg] was saying publicly in terms of being fair and equitable."

Conservatives have historically been far more likely than liberals to shun vaccines and the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine has been underwhelming.

In a 2019 Gallup poll, the number of Republicans who said it was "extremely or very important" for parents to vaccinate their children was at 79%, compared to 92% in Democrats.

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More recently, 49% of Republican males said they will not get the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey. Just 6% of Democratic men said they won't get the vaccine.

A recent CBS poll also found that as many as one in three Republicans were not planning to get vaccinated.

Facebook killed a tool to fight anti-vaxx information because it disproportionately affected conservatives, report says
People are seen at a protest against masks, vaccines, and vaccine passports outside the CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, on March 13, 2021.Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

"I'm very surprised that the high percentage of Republicans say they don't want to get vaccinated," Anthony Fauci, the top US infectious disease expert, said Sunday in an appearance on Fox News.

"I don't understand where that's coming from. This is not a political issue. This is a public-health issue."

Dr. Paul Offit, a member of the Food and Drug Administration's vaccine advisory committee, told NBC News that it was a serious barrier which could make it hard to end the US outbreak.

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"What worries me is if 25% of Republicans say they won't get vaccinated, that's going to be hard to do," he said.

Kaplan began taking an interest in content moderation after Republican Party supporters attacked the company for a purported anti-conservative bias in 2016, MIT Technology Review reported.

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