Facebook has a vaccine misinfo problem

...But the White House + Olivia Rodrigo are coming to the rescue

This week, Kevin Roose at the New York Times reported on Facebook's internal discussions about restricting access to their transparency data because they don’t like how it makes them look. At the heart of Facebook execs’ problem is Crowdtangle, a tool that journalists and the public can use to see rankings of the most engaging posts across Facebook and Instagram. Week after week, as Roose regularly points out, far-right, inflammatory content regularly receives the most interactions across Facebook’s platform. After reading the report, we decided to do a quick search in Crowdtangle for ourselves, and what we found was unsurprisingly very bad for Facebook

But first...  

By the numbers

Here are the top 10 political ad spenders on Facebook and Instagram last week:

Republicans clearly spent the most on Facebook advertising last week, primarily led by the NRSC and the RNC. The NRSC’s ads promote “Trump’s social media platform,” rail against “Big Tech,” and use a variety of fake surveys and polls, all to collect emails and phone numbers ahead of next year’s midterms. 

Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, who has not declared his intention to run for reelection, has recently spent quite a bit on Facebook ads from a page called Blue Wave Illinois, touting Democrats’ accomplishments in the state. 

Earlier this week, we realized that the top political organization spending on Facebook ads last quarter was Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity. Here’s a deep dive into their most recent campaigns.

When it comes to YouTube and Google ads, the NRSC is still among the top spenders, but Democrats and progressive groups are keeping pace. Here are the top 10 political ad spenders on Google last week:

Among the top spenders on political YouTube ads last week was One Nation, the nonprofit affiliated with Sen. Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership Fund. One of their  ads last week targeted Arizona and pressured Sen. Mark Kelly to “stand with Sen. Sinema and protect the Senate 60-vote rule.”

...and FWIW, here are the top 10 political ad spenders on Snapchat this year:

Among the new Snapchat ad campaigns was one from Community Change - targeting adults in ME, GA, UT, MS, MN, SD, IN, and CO with an estimated household income under $50,000 - promoting the expanded child tax credit that Democrats passed in the American Rescue Plan earlier this year. The ads lead to a calculator that estimates how much money a family might expect to receive from the program, which then points them to resources for them to claim the tax credit. Community Change has so far spent $1,079 on the campaign.

Top Facebook content reinforces anti-vaccine positions & narratives

Pundits may have questioned why President Biden invited Olivia Rodrigo to the White House this week and temporarily broke Beltway Political Twitter, but the White House team knows they still have a tough job on their hands to combat vaccine hesitancy. That hesitancy is made worse by Facebook, which, despite its press releases, continues to allow its platform to be a megaphone for anti-vaccine commentary and voices. 

On Tuesday evening, before the Olivia Rodrigo event, we did a search in Crowdtangle for all posts across Facebook in the US mentioning “vaccine,” “vaccines,” or “vaccinated.” Here’s the breakdown of what we found:

The number one most-engaged post on Facebook in the past month related to the COVID vaccine was a video by right-wing personality Candace Owens, in which she tells her anti-vaccine followers that they should be ok being fired from their jobs for not being vaccinated, because “no job is worth your health.” The video spreads misinformation that there is a widespread issue of people being fired for being unvaccinated (not true), implies that the vaccines aren’t safe (they are very safe) and the comments on the post tell you all you need to know about how it resonated with her audience. The video received over 130,000 shares and was viewed 4 million times.  

The number two most-engaged post was actually from a mainstream news outlet - ABC World News Tonight - that featured negative news about a very rare health risk from the vaccine. In terms of gaining interactions on Facebook, alarmism always outperforms calm, which is a core problem of the platform. That video was shared 260,000 times and received over 10 million views. 

With the exception of a pro-vaccine post from actor Hugh Jackman’s page, the rest of the top vaccine-related posts ranged from mocking vaccine science to being critical of the administration’s strategy to vaccinate millions of hesitant Americans. They repeatedly slam the media and big government for “forcing” vaccines on Americans and claim that the shots themselves are “experimental” (even though the vaccines are the public’s choice and have the full support of the medical community.)  

Rodrigo to the Rescue

Before Olivia Rodrigo’s White House visit, only three pro-vaccine posts had broken into the top fifteen - from Jackman, Biden, and VP Harris. Following Wednesday’s event, however, that began to change. These two posts from the President and Rodrigo’s page catapulted into the top ten most engaged vaccine-related posts across Facebook, getting nearly 150,000 interactions in 24 hours 👏.

Meanwhile, on Instagram

The outlook on Instagram seems to be better than on Facebook, with generally fewer negative posts about vaccines going viral. Before the Olivia Rodrigo White House event, the top three posts about the COVID vaccines on Instagram in the past 30 days came from @Malala, @CNN, and a meme page called @scoobydoofruitsnacks joking about vaping.

But here’s where the White House digital team comes in: these four posts related to the Olivia Rodrigo saga instantly gained *millions* of interactions within a matter of hours, and are now the top four most engaged vaccine-related posts on Instagram in the past 30 days. 

Well done, team. 🏆

We know that engagement (the number of people liking, sharing commenting) on platforms like Facebook doesn’t equal reach (the number of people actually seeing a post in their feed), but since Facebook refuses to release data on post reach, this type of Crowdtangle engagement data is one of our only solid barometers for evaluating the impact of organic content on their platforms. As Facebook continues to be dominated by bad actors like Candace Owens and others, the White House digital team is smart to continue exploring ways to game the algorithms and make big splashes to reach millions of Americans on the site. 


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