By creating chaos, tension and strife, social media is now weaponised against the very people it’s meant to connect, entertain and engage, writes Harini Calamur

The role of social media in spreading vaccine hesitancy cannot be understated. Scholars and experts blame social platforms for increasing anxiety, sleep disorders, and vaccine hesitancy. And despite multiple outbreaks, these platforms do not seem to have learned that lies and fake news are not protected under free speech.

Prashant Bhushan describes himself as a ‘public interest lawyer and activist’. He is best known for that too. He had a brief innings as one of the founding fathers of the IAC movement, before he was unceremoniously edged out by Arvind Kejriwal. However, there is another part of Mr Bhushan that is not very well known. And that pertains to how he increases the vaccine hesitancy amongst his followers — almost 2.2 million of them on Twitter. He constantly puts up dubious research questioning vaccines. And these gain tremendous traction. While there have been cases where Twitter has labelled them as ‘misleading’, they are still left up there to cause more mischief.

Anti-vaxxer posts

Prashant Bhushan is not the only verified account that is spreading misinformation about vaccines. Self-proclaimed feminist author Naomi Wolf was suspended from Twitter in June 2021, after spending the best part of 15 months tweeting against vaccines. Amongst her most preposterous claims was that vaccines were software platforms that could receive uploads. While Twitter faces a lot of the flak for misinformation, it also has in-built mechanisms for fake news to be called out almost immediately. Mr Bhushan’s misinformation has been called out regularly, as was Dr Wolf’s.

Facebook, on the other hand, by the very nature of its algorithms, traps you in an echo chamber. Eli Pariser in his book ‘Filter Bubble’ talks about how enclosing audiences in a filter bubble/echo chamber increases engagement. And no one does this better than Facebook. It has spent the best part of the last decade moving people who were right of centre, to the extreme fringes. They did this by feeding them a constant dose of misinformation that kept these audiences scared and hooked. It has done the same with audiences who were left of centre, moving them to more extreme positions by creating a world where everyone else was out to get them. Both Brexit and the Trump election were a part of these machinations of Facebook.

Facebook has been recommending anti-vaxxer pages posts and videos despite committing to take down posts and content that spread vaccine hesitancy. And there is only one plausible reason for this. It increases engagement.

Losing battle

While Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all use humans – in addition to AI – to monitor the content and take down content that is misinformation; the fact is that it is a losing battle. They simply don’t have the number of people that are needed to counter organised groups and their ability to push their agenda into the mainstream.

This is all the more true, when these groups use sophisticated data mining and targeting tools to change the minds of audience groups. The area of computational propaganda looks at how algorithms, AI, and human intent and curation “purposefully distribute misleading information over social media networks”.

Both Facebook and Twitter have been repeated offenders in allowing lies to pass without censure. In fact, those who consistently lie and spread fake news have been rewarded by these platforms. The worst kind of lie peddlers are the new celebrities in the world.

Monster unleashed

Both platforms use the fig leaf of the ‘first amendment’ in the US to justify their stance. But even here, they lie. The First Amendment protects Americans from the government trying to restrict their free speech. Platforms that are private entities can state their own rules that ensure that the reach of their platform is not misused. Twitter and Facebook have chosen not to do this.

Creating chaos, tension and strife, social media has become weaponised against the very people it was meant to connect, entertain, and engage. And, while Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg play regular lip service to correct this, they have been ineffective. And, therefore, regulation seems just around the corner. Because, if Twitter and Facebook cannot control the monster that they have unleashed, then we are left with no option but to turn to the state.

The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker

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