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White House pins anti-vax misinfo on Facebook

July 16, 2021, 4:44 PM UTC

Another day, another set of politicians swinging at Facebook.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki specifically called out Facebook on Thursday for letting vaccine misinformation spread, saying that it takes too long for the company to remove posts that violate its misinformation policies.

“Posts that will be within their policies’ removal often remain up for days. That’s too long. The information spreads too quickly,” she said.

The White House has been urging Facebook to take faster action for weeks, according to a CNN report, which suggests mounting frustration with the social media giant.

The CNN source went so far as to say that Facebook is either not “taking this very seriously, or they are hiding something,” a cryptic and largely speculative way to cast doubt on the company’s efforts, but one that adds some nice cloak-and-dagger flair to the conversation.

The White House is focusing on Facebook because of its sheer size and impact with Americans. The latest numbers from Pew Research indicate that nearly 70% of Americans use Facebook, and a third of U.S. adults get their news from the site.

Facebook’s size is also an issue for Facebook itself. The company says it has removed more than 18 million pieces of COVID-19 misinformation, in response to the White House’s claims. But that number is small compared to the volume of posts from hundreds of millions of Americans over the last six months, and vastly more posts on a global level. An August 2020 report from global nonprofit Avaaz estimated that health misinformation had been viewed 3.8 billion times on Facebook in the first months of the pandemic, and only 16% of content had a warning label on it.

Facebook’s scale has plagued its content moderation goals for years. There is simply too much content to thoroughly police. The company has repeatedly tried to hand more of the task over to algorithms, which are ill-suited to screen the veracity of new information. The inability to automate human judgement has meant relying on an army of about 15,000 content moderators, who are mostly subcontractors and receive little mental health support for being exposed to the darkest and most disturbing content posted to Facebook.

“You’re reviewing, you know, maybe hundreds of pieces of content a day, and of that content, a really healthy percentage of it is bad stuff,” one contractor told NBC News said. “I mean, we’re talking everything from hate speech, to animal mutilation, to videos of people committing suicide, child pornography.”

And now, already over-taxed moderators are tasked with keeping out vaccine misinformation, too.

That doesn’t make Facebook’s responsibility, or the danger of misinformation about the efficacy of vaccines, any less.

White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain says that he even told Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg the same thing himself.

“I’ve told Mark Zuckerberg directly that when we gather groups of people who are not vaccinated, and we ask them, ‘Why aren’t you vaccinated?’ and they tell us things that are wrong, tell us things that are untrue, and we ask them where they’ve heard that,” Klain said.

“The most common answer is Facebook.”

Dave Gershgorn 
@DaveGershgorn

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BEFORE YOU GO

The Hubble returns. After more than a month of troubleshooting, NASA has fixed the 31-year-old Hubble telescope. An issue with the telescope's scientific computer had taken the spacecraft out of commission, and after a stream of unsuccessful repair attempts NASA had to switch over to a backup computer. The move was risky, as there was a miniscule chance an error in the reboot cycle would take Hubble offline forever, but the gamble worked out.

Here's an explanation for space nerds:

Staff practiced the procedure with hardware on the ground over the past week and a full review was carried out to ensure it could be done without harming the telescope in other ways. Shortly before the switch was started yesterday, NASA announced it had identified the power control unit (PCU), which is part of the SI C&DH [Science Instrument Command and Data Handling], as the source of the problem. The PCU supplies a steady voltage supply to the payload computer and it was either supplying voltage outside the normal range or the sensor that detects the voltage was giving an erroneous reading. Because there is a spare PCU as part of the SI C&DH, the switch went ahead.

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