Anti-vaxxers are using emojis to avoid detection by social-media algorithms, a BBC investigation found.
One large Facebook group used the carrot emoji to replace the word vaccine, per the BBC.
The shot glass emoji was also used to replace the word “shot” and disparage vaccines.
Groups sharing baseless claims that people are being hurt or killed by vaccines are avoiding social-media bans on anti-vaxx content by using the carrot emoji, a BBC investigation found.
Per the BBC, several social media groups were using the emoji as a code for the word “vaccine.” The simple ruse allowed them to continue unhindered posting content that the networks had pledged to stamp out.
One Facebook group using the code, which the BBC did not name, had over 250,000 members.
The rules of the group stated: “Use code words for everything” and “Do not use the c word, v word or b word ever” meaning “COVID,” “vaccine,” or “booster,” per the BBC.
The trend was also noticed by Marc Owen Jones, an Assistant Professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University, Qatar, who studies disinformation. The BBC said Jones was invited to the large Facebook group.
He said in a Twitter thread on Sunday the carrot emoji symbol was used to replace the word vaccine “presumably to evade censorship. Very odd.”
According to a screen grab shared by Jones in a tweet, the admin of the group stated that they would remove any posts not coded and that “coding is important and carrots are to date not picked up by AI censors.”
Another image shared by Jones showed the shot glass emoji used to replace the word “shot,” though he did not specify where the image was taken.
The BBC flagged the group using the emojis as code to Facebook’s parent company Meta, which took them down.
“We have removed this group for violating our harmful misinformation policies and will review any other similar content in line with this policy. We continue to work closely with public health experts and the UK government to further tackle Covid vaccine misinformation,” Meta said in a statement to the BBC.
Some groups reappeared a little while after being removed, per the BBC.
A previous Politifact report found other tactics used to foil automated moderation, for instance by using deliberate misspellings like writing “Seedy Sea” and “Eff Dee Aye” instead of CDC and FDA.
The BBC also found examples of posts using the unicorn emoji or the V-shaped symbol for the astrological signs Aries as stand-ins for the word “vaccine.”
Other examples of emoji-based coding include using them to get away with posting racist abuse.
Emojis are harder for algorithms to understand because they are trained on text-based platforms like Wikipedia or books, said Hannah Rose Kirk, a social data science student of the Oxford Internet Institute, in a 2021 blog post.
Rachel Moran, a researcher who studies COVID-19 misinformation at the University of Washington, previously told Politifact that the coding does present a drawback: because it is harder to understand, the banned information still travels more slowly than if it were in plain English.
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