Torontonians Mitchell Moffit and Greg Brown identified a need for science-based information on social media long before the pandemic hit. For the past year, though, their role as influencers has given them a front-row seat to the misunderstandings, rumours and conspiracy theories spreading online about the coronavirus.
“A lot of people are at least searching, looking for answers,” Moffit said.
Moffit and Brown’s YouTube channel, AsapSCIENCE, has amassed nearly 10 million followers by “making science make sense” through their self-made videos. Their brand has been built on explaining common experiences, such as how to fall asleep quickly or what happens when someone stops brushing their teeth. These days, it means talking a lot about COVID-19 and, increasingly, the vaccines.
“We’re in a pandemic, it’s a very scary situation,” Moffit said. “And so for us, it’s just a moment to say, hey, let’s calm down. Let’s just understand what’s happening.”
Social media provides the pair with a powerful podium from which to share their interest in science, but they’re also exposed to the flip-side of the technology. Brown said they do tend to get “a lot of positive reaction” to their videos about the COVID-19 vaccine, “but also, that’s where we really get to understand where the misinformation plot lines are coming from.”
Moffit added that helping people find the right answers easily and “sussing out” the misinformation, “is really a responsibility of these big media corporations, like YouTube, like Facebook.”
Indeed, as governments around the world have grappled with deploying the first COVID-19 vaccines, social media companies have been working behind the scenes to deal with misinformation about them on their platforms.
This past week, Twitter and Tiktok both announced they would be expanding their policies around misinformation to include the COVID-19 vaccine as a key focus. Google and Facebook have also turned their attention to the issue.
“I think we have a very important responsibility to ensure that we strike the appropriate balance between freedom of expression and keeping our communities safe when it comes to the vaccine,” said Kevin Chan, the global director of public policy at Facebook Canada.
According to Chan, from the beginning of the pandemic through to October, Facebook removed “12 million pieces of individual misinformation content that is harmful in nature” regarding COVID-19. These include false claims about cures or treatments, and assertions the virus does not exist.
Now, it’s looking to filter misinformation around the vaccine in a similar way.
“If it’s about its safety, its efficacy, the ingredients, we will remove those things from Facebook,” Chan said. “If there are conspiracies about the origins of this vaccine, we will remove that as well.”
Posts from individuals who have what Chan refers to as “legitimate questions” about the vaccine won’t be targeted.
“We do want to preserve the space for people to be able to express individual thoughts [and] anecdotes about their experiences,” he said.
It’s a balance other social media companies are also trying to maintain.
According to Michele Austin, head of public policy at Twitter Canada, #covid-19 and #coronavirus were the top two hashtags in Canada in 2020.
When it comes to the vaccines, she said, “People want to talk about these issues. And I think it’s really important for us to provide a safe place on the service for these conversations to happen.”
Twitter announced in a blog post on Wednesday that the company would begin to remove “the most harmful misleading information” relating to the COVID-19 vaccines, and “label Tweets that contain potentially misleading information about the vaccines.”
However, in cases where someone may post something based on a misunderstanding or as “part of their journey to discover whether or not they should get vaccinated,” Austin said, “I think it would not be great for us to take down that tweet.”
Montreal-based researcher Aengus Bridgman with the Media Ecosystem Observatory said such virtual conversations are no surprise as Canadians try to understand the new vaccines. But he said people who spend more time on social media and consume more of their news on those platforms “tend to be somewhat more” vaccine hesitant.
Misinformation circulating online, he said, “can generate misperceptions about the vaccine and can also lead to people then continuing to propagate it.”
According to Bridgman, “if something is widely shared, is highly up-voted or has a lot of likes,” more people are likely to start believing it.
In an effort to help prioritize trusted sources, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook now offer “prompts” on their platforms, directing users to seek out information about the coronavirus from government sites, such as the Public Health Agency of Canada.
According to a spokesperson with Health Canada, more than 11 million visits to the Government of Canada’s website have come from social media prompts since the start of the pandemic.
But with so much of the conversation happening online these days, Bridgman questions whether social media companies’ own methods to curb misinformation stretch far enough.
“Especially during a pandemic, when face-to-face contact is limited, what we have is companies deciding what is and what is not fair speech in online spaces,” he said. “Well, OK, but where is the democratic oversight of that?”
Understanding the scope and scale of people’s misperceptions online “is uniquely important right now,” Bridgman said, at a time when “these misperceptions have real life or death consequences.”
Bridgman doesn’t discount, however, what he refers to as the “enormous opportunity” for “well-crafted” COVID-19 information to reach huge audiences on social media.
Through their own videos and posts, Moffit said he and Brown are keen to connect with those people who are “reasonably just unsure” about COVID-19 vaccines.
“We all want to protect ourselves. We all want to protect our families, our kids. And so, I think to simply educate people is really powerful,” he said.
WATCH | From The National, how social media companies are countering misinformation about COVID-19: