Concerned about the number of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients presenting to his hospital, the French doctor logged on to Facebook and uploaded a video urging people to get vaccinated.
Soon she received dozens, then hundreds, then more than 1,000 hate messages from an extremist anti-vaccine group known as V—V. The group, active in France and Italy, has harassed doctors and public health officials, vandalized government offices and tried to disrupt vaccine clinics.
Alarmed by the abuse of its platform, Facebook started several accounts linked to the group last December. But it didn’t stop V—V, which continues to use Facebook and other platforms and, like many anti-vaccine groups around the world, has expanded its portfolio to include climate change denial and anti-democratic messaging.
“Let’s get them home, they don’t have to sleep anymore,” reads a post from the group. “Fight with us!” read another
The largely unchecked nature of attacks on the undisputed health benefits of the vaccine highlights the clear limits of a social media company in thwarting even the most destructive kind of misinformation, especially without a sustained aggressive effort.
Researchers at Reset, a UK-based nonprofit, identified more than 15,000 abusive or misinformation-laden Facebook posts by V—V, with activity peaking in the spring of 2022, months after the platform announced its actions against the organization. In a report on V—V’s activities, Reset researchers concluded that its continued presence on Facebook raises “questions about the effectiveness and consistency of Meta’s self-reported intervention.”
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, noted in response that its 2021 actions were never intended to remove all VV content, but to remove accounts found to be engaging in coordinated harassment. After The Associated Press notified Facebook of the group’s continued activities on its platform, it said it removed an additional 100 accounts this week.
Meta said it’s trying to strike a balance between removing content from groups like V—V that clearly violate rules against harassment or dangerous misinformation, while not silencing innocent users. This can be especially difficult when it comes to the controversial issue of vaccines.
“This is a very contentious space and our efforts are ongoing: since our initial withdrawal, we have taken numerous actions against this network’s attempts to come back,” a Meta spokesperson told the AP.
V—V is also active on Twitter, where Reset researchers found hundreds of accounts and thousands of posts from the group. Many of the accounts were created shortly after Facebook took action on the program last winter, Reset found.
In response to Reset’s report, Twitter said it took enforcement action against several accounts linked to V—V, but did not elaborate on those actions.
V—V has proven particularly resistant to efforts to stop it. Named after the movie “V for Vendetta,” in which a lone, masked man seeks revenge against an authoritarian government, the group uses fake accounts to evade detection and often coordinates its messages and activities on platforms such as Telegram that they don’t have the most aggressive of Facebook. moderation policies.
That adaptability is one reason the group has been difficult to stop, according to Jack Stubbs, a researcher at Graphika, a data analytics firm that has tracked VV’s activities.
“They understand how the Internet works,” Stubbs said.
Graphika estimated the group’s membership at 20,000 by the end of 2021, with a smaller core of members involved in its online harassment efforts. In addition to Italy and France, the Graphika team found evidence that V—V is trying to create chapters in Spain, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil and Germany, where a similar anti-government movement known as Querdenken is active.
Groups and movements like V—V and Querdenken have increasingly alarmed law enforcement and extremism researchers who say there is evidence that far-right groups are using skepticism about COVID-19 and vaccines to expand their reach.
Increasingly, these groups are moving from online harassment to real-world action.
For example, in April, V—V used Telegram to announce plans to pay a 10,000-euro reward to vandals who spray-painted the group’s symbol (two red Vs in a circle) on public buildings or vaccine clinics. The group then used Telegram to spread photos of the vandalism.
A month before Facebook took action against V—V, Italian police raided the homes of 17 anti-vaccine activists who had used Telegram to make threats against government, medical and media figures for their perceived support of COVID-19 restrictions .
Social media companies have struggled to respond to a wave of vaccine misinformation since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Earlier this week, Facebook and Instagram suspended Children’s Health Defense, an influential anti-vaccine organization led by Robert Kennedy Jr.
One reason is the tricky balance between moderating harmful content and protecting free expression, according to New York University’s Joshua Tucker, who co-directs NYU’s Center on Social Media and Politics and is a senior adviser to Kroll, a technology, government and financial company. consulting company
Striking the right balance is especially important because social media has become a key source of news and information around the world. Leave too much bad content and users can be misinformed. Remove too much and users will start to distrust the platform.
“It’s dangerous for society that we’re moving in a direction where no one feels they can trust information,” Tucker said.
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