As countries around the world begin to institute the coronavirus vaccine, Facebook announced on December 3, 2020 that the company will remove debunked claims regarding the vaccine from all its platforms.
“Facebook is supporting the global public health community’s work to keep people safe and informed during the coronavirus public health crisis,” wrote Kang-Xing Jin, Head of Health at the company. Despite the claims, however, it appears that the company is struggling to reign in anti-vaccination propaganda on its younger, trendier counterpart Instagram.
A series of reports published by The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a nonprofit that focuses on hate speech and misinformation online, identified that the number of followers for anti-vaccination accounts is growing faster on Instagram than anywhere else. “Instagram accounts for more than half of anti-vax campaigners’ follower growth during the COVID pandemic, attracting an extra 571,000 people,” according to the report published in July. A follow-up report published in September claimed that Instagram’s anti-vaccination audience is roughly around 7.8 million, and the growth of the anti-vax audience on Instagram accounts for 42 percent of the total growth across Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, and Twitter. While Facebook remains the platform with the largest anti-vaccination audience, it recorded around 1 percent growth in the same period.
A probable reason for this could be that the parent company appears to be a lot lax regarding the enforcement of its policies on Instagram than it is on Facebook, even as representatives deny any difference in how their policies are applied across their platforms. Up until very recently searching the word “vaccine” reaped markedly different results on both platforms. While the search on Facebook returned profiles for Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and a few pro-vaccination pages, three of the top five results on Instagram for the same word were anti-vaccination accounts. In fact, two of these accounts kept showing up in the top five search results even after this was pointed out to Instagram and the company doubled down on its policy enforcement.
This is also disturbing because the algorithm on Instagram works like a rabbit hole, pushing content similar to what you have been viewing. According to a story on Vice in 2019, instead of restricting content from anti-vaccination pages, the platform actively suggests it to people who have a history of viewing anti-vax content on the application. And while notable anti-vaccination personalities such as David Icke and Del Bigtree have been removed from Facebook, they continue to hold a combined audience of around 422,000 followers on Instagram.
It is surprising, thus, that while Facebook has received its fair share of flack for enabling anti-vaccination rhetoric, Instagram has escaped relatively unscrutinised. The growing trend of anti-vaccination propaganda on the platform is also concerning since it tends to attract a younger audience than Facebook, whose worldviews are still developing.
Aimun Faisal works as a Project Coordinator at Media Matters for Democracy. She is a journalist and an educator, who cares far too much about feminism, global political trends, and Pakistan cricket, and thus very little about her mental health.