Anthony Buchanan considers himself a scientific, independent thinker. But for months, the Foreman, Ark.-based arborist couldn’t decide what to believe about vaccines. Google searches turned up conflicting information, and his Facebook feed was dominated by vaccine-skeptical posts and memes.

Then Buchanan came across a private Facebook group called Vaccine Talk that billed itself as “an evidence based discussion forum” for pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine folks alike. As he followed the discussions, occasionally chiming in with a question of his own, he noticed a pattern.

“On both sides, there’s people telling the truth, at least their truth,” said Buchanan, 32, who last month became infected with the coronavirus. “But on the pro-vaccine side, there was just more logic” – and more links to solid research. “On the anti-vaccine side, there was more conspiracy.”

Now he’s going to get vaccinated.

As covid-19 cases surge in the United States, jeopardizing the reopening of schools and offices and rekindling debates about mask and vaccination mandates, the battle to win over the vaccine-skeptical has taken on fresh urgency. Much of that struggle is happening on social media, where misinformation about the vaccines continues to flourish. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have all established rules against posting false information about covid and vaccines. Yet just this weekend Facebook said the most-shared link on its site from January to March this year was an article that raised concerns that the vaccine could lead to death.

Amid the online scare stories and anti-vaccine memes, an army of local influencers and everyday users is waging a grass-roots campaign on Facebook, Reddit and other platforms to gently win over the vaccine-skeptical. They’re spending hours moderating forums, responding to comments, linking to research studies, and sharing tips on how to talk to fearful family members.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Advertising

“It feels a lot like covid is something that is completely out-of-control and there is nothing we can do, like it’s this out-of-control wildfire and I’m just one person with a little hose,” said Kate Bilowitz, an Oakland, Calif.-based mom who works for a real estate company and co-founded Vaccine Talk. “But when people reach out to us, it feels like it’s making a little bit of a difference.”

Their work exemplifies Facebook’s stated goal to “bring the world closer together.” But Bilowitz and others who run similar forums say that the interventions made by technology companies are often counterproductive, and that software algorithms frequently delete valuable conversations mistaken for misinformation.

“Facebook is attempting to shut down misinformation by shutting down all conversation entirely,” she said. “I strongly believe that civil, evidence-based discussion works, and Facebook’s policies make it extremely difficult for that to happen.”

Facebook leans on software and its army of 15,000 human moderators to detect covid misinformation. Last month, it said it had taken down more than 20 million posts since the start of the pandemic. But it routinely misses new memes and conspiracies, while at times scrubbing legitimate information. At the same time, its news feed algorithms boost posts that get the most engagement, often helping the most sensational claims go viral.

Twitter and Google-owned YouTube have employed similar strategies, using algorithms to parse text posts and listen to videos, sometimes banning them immediately and other times flagging them for a human to review. The companies have peppered their sites with links to official coronavirus information from the Centers for Disease Control and World Health Information, as well as pushing articles from mainstream news organizations to the top of people’s feeds and search results.

Still, misinformation remains a big enough problem online that last month, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called vaccine misinformation “a serious threat to public health” and President Biden accused Facebook of “killing people.”

Advertising

While the White House is launching a project to pay micro-influencers to spread pro-vaccine messaging, a handful of carefully designed and self-policed online spaces, such as the Vaccine Talk group on Facebook, are showing that it is possible to change people’s minds, one nuanced post at a time. To do it, they’re adopting moderation systems and rules of discourse very different from those of the social media platforms.

People’s attitudes toward the coronavirus vaccines are complex, and it’s hard to quantify the role social media has played in sowing or overcoming their doubts. A recent survey by Rutgers University found that people who get their news primarily from Facebook were less likely to be vaccinated than any other group of news consumers.

But research also supports the idea that social media can be a force for pro-vaccine persuasion, under the right circumstances. A forthcoming study from researchers at the MIT Sloan School of Management, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that people on the fence about vaccination can be swayed by learning that others around them are getting vaccinated. And a 2020 study by health misinformation researchers Emily Vraga of the University of Minnesota and Leticia Bode of Georgetown University showed that social media users who rebut misleading claims with factual information may not persuade the original poster, but can influence the beliefs of others who witness the exchanges.

People concerned about vaccine safety may be easier to convince than those who don’t trust the government or medical authorities, said Wendy King, an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Earlier this year, King surveyed more than 5 million U.S. adults about their attitudes toward coronavirus vaccines. Many who said they may not or won’t get vaccinated said they feared side effects – a sign they may be influenced by misinformation.

“They are reading a lot of nonscientific literature and a lot of social media posts about things that are happening to people post-vaccine, and they are really worried,” King said.

That’s what happened for Bilowitz, 35. She first turned to Facebook for information on childhood vaccinations in 2015, after she gave birth. Months earlier, there had been a measles outbreak at Disneyland, which officials blamed on too-low vaccination rates. She realized a Facebook group she had joined was run by vaccine opponents, part of the anti-vaccine movement that flourished on social media long before the coronavirus pandemic.

Advertising

After Bilowitz and some other moms got kicked out of that group, they formed the Vaccine Talk group to focus on “evidence-based” information.

“The most important rule was ‘civility,'” said Bilowitz. “There are some groups online where people just yell at each other. We wanted to just be able to talk to one another without it getting that way.”

Vaccine Talk now has nearly 70,000 members, each of whom must gain administrators’ approval to join and commit to a code of conduct. Strict rules prohibit users from misrepresenting themselves, offering medical advice and harassing or bullying people. Another key rule: Be ready to provide citations within 24 hours for any claim you make. Twenty-five moderators and administrators in six countries monitor the posts, and those who flout the rules are kicked out.

“Usually the hardcore anti-vaxxers cannot follow the rules,” Bilowitz said. “They are usually spamming people with their commentary. I think it’s hard for them: They are basically coming out of an echo chamber.”

Vaccine Talk represents exactly the type of conversations Facebook says it wants to cultivate. But Bilowitz said the social network’s often clumsy and heavy-handed enforcement of covid misinformation policies has made their work more difficult. In June, Facebook temporarily shut down the group because someone posted an article deemed to be misinformation. But the poster had been seeking advice on how to rebut the article.

“We were just caught up in the algorithm,” Bilowitz said, “and felt there wasn’t a human in charge of the process.”

Sponsored

To combat covid misinformation, Facebook has created both a banner across its site and a tab on covid-related posts that link people to authoritative information from public health organizations. The company’s head of health, Kang-Xing Jin, said surveys suggest vaccine acceptance on the part of American Facebook users has increased since January, from about 70 percent to upward of 80 percent. But he has also acknowledged the challenge in drawing a line between posts that evince earnest skepticism and those that are ideologically motivated.

Monica Buescher, a 32-year-old teacher in Vacaville, Calif., said she went “deep down the rabbit hole” of anti-vaccine misinformation when she had her second child in 2019. Convinced that shots were dangerous, she nonetheless wanted to hear the pro-vaccine side. She found her way to Vaccine Talk, which she said had a reputation among anti-vaccine groups as being “mean” for banning those who made claims without scientific evidence.

On Vaccine Talk, Buescher credits a handful of people with walking her through the scientific evidence and persuading her that routine childhood vaccines are safe and effective. Now, Buescher is helping her friends and family navigate conflicting information about coronavirus vaccines.

“It’s mostly just offering my experience, hopefully in an unassuming way that implies I’ve tried to understand both sides,” she said.

Vaccine Talk isn’t the only venue for such conversations. In other corners of the Internet where ground rules and moderators facilitate conversations that don’t spiral into shouting matches, people who had avoided getting vaccinated against the coronavirus are finding reasons to do so.

Ryan Steward, 29, a mechanic and pastor from Spartanburg, S.C., had never hesitated to get vaccines for himself or his family – until he started hearing scary stories about the covid shots.

Advertising

“I wanted to find a way to break out of my echo chambers,” he said, “find something to shake me out of this fear that had been instilled in me by misinformation and by the media.”

A frequent user of automotive forums on the social media site Reddit, Steward was aware of a popular group called “r/ChangeMyView,” where people post a controversial opinion and invite others to challenge their assumptions. Those who succeed are awarded points, a system meant to incentivize users to keep their replies civil and constructive.

On Aug. 8, Steward posted there for the first time, spelling out his concerns about coronavirus vaccines. He cited the lack of full Food and Drug Administration approval, the potential for long-term side effects and reports of breakthrough cases among the vaccinated – and braced himself for a cavalcade of vitriol. But aside from one nasty comment that was quickly deleted by the group’s moderators, he got the opposite.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” wrote one user. “The same concerns crossed my mind. However, you aren’t just deciding on the risks of the vaccine, or not. You’re deciding on the risks of the vaccine or the risks of covid.” Other commenters explained the FDA approval process, linked to academic studies and pointed to the pro-vaccine consensus among doctors worldwide, not just in the United States.

Steward felt grateful – and convinced.

“Within a matter of two hours, my mind had been changed completely,” he said. He showed the thread to his wife, who agreed to get the vaccine if he went first. So Steward scheduled an appointment – and received his first Moderna shot on Aug. 13.

In interviews, two moderators of ChangeMyView said they see their forum as an oasis of polite discourse in a digital landscape dominated by shouting matches. They also said it’s a constant struggle, on the part of more than 20 active moderators and a core of conscientious users, to keep it that way.

Advertising

If you want to persuade someone, “approaching them with a sense of empathy is very important – and very much missing, I think, from a huge amount of conversation that happens online,” said London entrepreneur Stuart Johnson, 20, one of the subreddit’s active moderators. “Even if you’re completely right, if your post is just strongly calling out the other person or generalizing about them, they will completely close down. Their ego will no longer allow them to change their mind.”

Johnson also acknowledged, however, that the person has to be open to having their mind changed in the first place. Surveys suggest that many vaccine holdouts are more likely to be persuaded by mandates or cash payments than online debate.

The big tech companies have also made significant changes to their moderation policies during the pandemic. Last year, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube all said that posts promoting fake treatments for covid would be taken down. And they’ve worked with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the World Health Organization to append links to authoritative information on any post they deem to be about covid or vaccines. YouTube also has begun working with hospital groups to create new video series that offer authoritative medical information in response to popular health-related searches.

Yet online misinformation has proved resilient. A study published earlier this month by researchers at Yale University found that Twitter users learn over time to tweet more “expressions of moral outrage” when such tweets generate more likes and retweets. “Even if platform designers do not intend to amplify moral outrage,” the authors wrote, “design choices aimed at satisfying other goals such as profit maximization via user engagement can indirectly affect moral behavior because outrage-provoking content draws high engagement.”

Outside these purpose-built forums, pro-vaccine messages from everyday Americans can also have an impact. Chelsey Palmer, a 32-year-old lawyer from Jacksonville, Fla., held off getting vaccinated until late June – first because she was pregnant and then because “covid seemed like it died down a little bit.”

But in recent weeks as the delta variant spread, she saw appeals from local medical professionals in her Facebook feed describing worsening conditions in hospitals.

Advertising

“Seeing people who were here locally in Jacksonville, just sharing their own experiences of what was going on, seeing their firsthand experience, really gave me the push I needed to get” vaccinated, Palmer said

In general, Palmer does not see Facebook as a good place to go for vaccine information, however.

“For the average person who’s not really trying to use critical thinking on social media, it’s actually a pretty dangerous place,” she said, noting that her feed is also riddled with scaremongering and conspiracy theories.

For those debating whether to get vaccinated, “I would not recommend going to social media,” Palmer said. “I would recommend going to a doctor.”

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

More