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Whistleblowers Come Forward; Facebook Censoring Comments That Promote ‘Vaccine Hesitancy’

Published: May 30, 2021
In this photo illustration, a smart phone screen displays the logo of Facebook on a Facebook website background, on April 7, 2021, in Arlington, Virginia. (Image: OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Two Facebook employees have come forward, leaking troves of internal company documents, demonstrating how Facebook is censoring comments that could encourage ‘Vaccine Hesitancy’ (VH), according to a report by James O’Keefe’s Project Veritas.   

The documents were published on Project Veritas’ website on May 24 and provide specific details concerning efforts made by the social media giant to manage the discussion around vaccines, specifically targeting “non-violating” content within the vast digital community. 

“We aim to identify and tier the categories of non-violating content that could discourage  vaccination in certain contexts, thereby contributing to vaccine hesitancy or refusal. We have tiered these by potential harm and how much context is required in order to evaluate harm,” reads one of the documents. 

The tiers established by Facebook divide comment content into three categories: “Violation of Policies: Coordinating Harm,” “Alarmism & Criticism,” and “Indirect Discouragement.”

The scheme appears to target comments that are critical of vaccines whether the content is truthful or otherwise. Comments that are deemed in “violation of policies” are removed “at scale” and “on escalation” while comments that are considered “alarmist” or that are deemed to “criticize choice” are suppressed or removed. “Personal objections,” “skepticism,” and “Neutral discussion / debate” are also targeted.

A “policy note” on one of the documents states, “For personal objections and skepticism, we have the ability to filter out comments if we want to,” implying Facebook is engaging in arbitrary censorship.

‘Why are we doing this?’

In another document, Hendrick Townley, a Software Engineer with Facebook, states under the heading, “Why are we doing this?” 

“We estimate that the prevalence of VH comments in Authoritative Health Pages is 25.3 percent and for other pages 19.42 percent. Now that the v1 Vaccine Hesitancy classifier has been cleared for this usecase (sic), reducing the visibility of these comments represents another significant opportunity for us to remove barriers to vaccination that users on the platform may potentially encounter.”

This appears to state that over 25 percent of all comments on “Authoritative Health Pages” meet Facebook’s criteria for promoting vaccine hesitancy. 

In what Facebook characterized as “experiments” the Big Tech giant tested its censorship algorithm on it’s users, even going so far as to manipulate the number of likes on comments. 

“For the next week we will be running experiments to judge the effectiveness of demoting comments in feeds that are scored highly by the v1 Vaccine Hesitancy (VH) classifier. The experiment only applies to comments that have also been created beneath vaccine-related posts.”

One document states, “For the vaccine hesitant comments we are demoting, we are reducing -2.64k likes (-42.5%), which would be 176k likes since the test size is 1.5%,” indicating that Facebook is manipulating the amount of likes that appear on some comments.

Facebook’s goal is to “drastically reduce user exposure” to vaccine-hesitant comments. 

When approached about the practice a Facebook spokesperson responded, “We proactively announced this policy on our company blog and also updated our help center with this information.”

‘I have to do something’ 

One of the two whistleblowers stated “I have to do something” when asked why they decided to come forward.

“It was such a shocking revelation, that it moved not just one — but two whistleblowers to come forward to Project Veritas, so the public could be made aware of this plan to stifle free speech,” Project Veritas reported.

They continued, “Comments that include ‘shocking stories’ describing potentially or actually true events, or facts that can raise safety concerns — are demoted.” 

Facebook has been accused of censorship on numerous occasions. During the 2020 presidential campaign Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, announced they would be enacting censorship measures “to help secure the integrity of the US elections.”

“They’re trying to control this content before it even makes it onto your page before you even see it,” one of the Facebook insiders said. “If I lose my job, it’s like, what do I do? But that’s less of a concern to me.”