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A war over vaccinations, fought in groups

In June 2017, Mark Zuckerberg rewrote Facebook's mission statement to better reflect its current prio
February 13 · Issue #289 · View online
The Interface
In June 2017, Mark Zuckerberg rewrote Facebook’s mission statement to better reflect its current priorities. In the future, he said, Facebook would have a strong focus on groups. Once you’ve reached most of the adult population of earth, it turns out that they would rather all not gather in the same virtual room. And so Facebook has set about promoting the creation of all manner of groups, and last week during a groups-focused event rolled out a suite of new features for administrators.
In Bloomberg today, Selina Wang takes a look at the popular group Subtle Asian Traits, and considers what its growth means for the groups project overall.
Fast-growing meme and community groups have been a bright spot for Facebook over the past several months amid a series of privacy scandals and the company’s own projections that people are spending less time on its namesake site. Subtle Asian Traits, while exceptionally popular, has origins typical of the genre: A group of Asian-Australian high school students, mostly first-generation immigrants, started it to distract themselves from exams. Screenshots of text exchanges with strict parents, photos of favorite childhood foods, and images that illustrate the difficulty of learning an Asian language usually attract thousands of likes and comments. “We’ve grown up in this environment where we’re the minority, and we don’t really have a community,” says group co-creator Anny Xie. “In this group, with a million other Asians, you’re all having the same experience as a community.”
But as Wang notes, groups have been just as vulnerable to hate speech, misinformation, and other woes that plague the News Feed. In the Guardian, Ed Pilkington and Jessica Glenza explore that downside, focusing on how anti-vaccination ghouls take advantage of Facebook’s viral distribution to spread propaganda:
Facebook is increasingly engaged in combatting misinformation that causes “real-world harm”. Yet despite the health risks, anti-vaccination propaganda is currently not treated as a breach of its content rules.
The Guardian asked Facebook to respond to the proliferation of vaccine misinformation on its platform, but the company did not reply.
In a Twitter thread, misinformation researcher Renee DiResta blames the groups’ rise on Facebook’s recommendation algorithm. “The FB recommendation engine actively pushes the larger ones like Stop Mandatory Vaccination at new parents,” she writes. “If you’re in a mom group, you’ll get antivax group recs.” She went on: “This is where the platform has real power to change. Take them out of the [recommendation] engine. YouTube recognizes that proactively pushing conspiracy theories is harmful; Facebook has the same problem but still does it.”
Until that happens, some children of anti-vaccination parents are taking matter into their own hands. Emily Moon reports that some nervous but resourceful young people are seeking advice … from Reddit forums.
With this misinformation still thriving elsewhere on the Internet, forums like r/legaladvice are a rare safe haven. Even some of the harsher feedback has helped; Charly, who posted when she was 17 years old and living in Canada, said she began to question her parents’ stance after seeing jokes and rants against anti-vaxxers on Reddit. “I began to feel bad about my unvaccinated existence,” she says. “It isn’t the best reason, but it’s truly what got to me.” Like Charly’s, many of the plaintive requests for advice contain a lot of shame. One unvaccinated user says they’ve tried not to tell anyone. Another writes in the comments: “You have nothing to be ashamed of for your parents not vaccinating you. It wasn’t something you researched and decided against, you were just doing the whole ‘being a kid’ thing.”
According to the CDC, “being a kid” should involve getting for vaccinated for 16 diseases. But for this group of teenagers, it means a regular flu and hours spent researching risks that don’t exist. Two years after her post, Charly is no longer a kid: Now 19, she says she was able to follow through on the recommendations in the comments and get vaccinated.
Groups on the internet: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.

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And finally ...
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