Anti-vaccine conspiracies are still getting engagement on Facebook — despite being fact-checked as false

February 20, 2019
Category: Fact-Checking

Fact vs. Fake is a weekly column in which we compare the reach of fact checks vs. hoaxes on Facebook. Read all our analyses here.

As Facebook faces rising pressure to remove anti-vaccine conspiracy theories from its recommendations, antivaxxer hoaxes are still getting plenty of engagement on the platform.

Over the weekend, the Agence France-Presse debunked a fake news story that claimed an American court had found a link between the mumps, measles and rubella vaccine and autism. The hoax was a copy of one that (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact rated “Pants-on-Fire” last week — except it was translated into French.

Both organizations are part of Facebook’s fact-checking partnership, which enables them to decrease the reach of posts that they find to be false. But while PolitiFact’s fact check got more reach than the antivaxxer hoax last week, the AFP had one-tenth of the Facebook engagements the fake racked up in France. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining Facebook’s project.)

Aside from antivaxxer conspiracies, this was a relatively good week for Facebook’s fact-checking partners. An Indonesian TV station stamped out a hoax about a presidential candidate cheating during a recent debate and British fact-checking charity Full Fact had more engagement on a fact check about taxes than an Islamophobic hoax.

Below are the top fact checks since last Tuesday in order of how many likes, comments and shares they got on Facebook, according to data from audience metrics tools BuzzSumo and CrowdTangle. None of them address spoken statements (like this one) because they aren’t tied to a specific URL, image or video that fact-checkers can flag. Read more about our methodology here.

(Screenshot from Facebook)

1. ‘Jokowi Accused of Using Communication Tools during Debate. Fact?’

Fact: 13.6K engagements

Fake: 9.4K engagements

This fact check was a major win for Liputan 6, an Indonesian TV station and one Facebook’s fact-checking partners.

On Feb. 17, a Facebook user posted a video and two images that purported to show presidential candidate Joko Widodo “Jokowi” using wireless earphones to aid him during the second debate of this year’s election. The post was copied from another Facebook user who racked up more than 35,000 shares before being deleted. Liputan 6 debunked the hoax Feb. 18, citing several officials who said the devices were microphones — not earphones.

Liputan 6 flagged the false post on Facebook, and Poynter was not able to share (and promptly delete) it without receiving a warning — except in the post-level view, which contains a glitch that lets users share false posts without a warning. Some users also deleted the hoax after receiving fact checks from the TV station and other outlets.

2. ‘O’Rourke Didn’t Trash Seniors and Veterans’

Fact: 2.4K engagements

Fake: 1.2K engagements

This debunk of a viral meme about Beto O’Rourke got twice as many Facebook engagements despite coming nearly two months after the hoax was first published.

On Dec. 29, a Facebook user posted a false meme claiming that the former U.S. congressman and senatorial candidate from Texas made disparaging comments about military veterans and the elderly. Factcheck.org debunked that meme Feb. 18, reporting that it found no evidence that O’Rourke ever made those comments. PolitiFact also rated the post “Pants-on-Fire.”

Factcheck.org flagged the false post on Facebook and Poynter could not share it without receiving a warning that it had been debunked.

(Screenshot from Facebook)

3. ‘You can’t be exempt from council tax if your home is used as a place of worship’

Fact: 2K engagements

Fake: 631 engagements

This fact check from Full Fact blew an Islamophobic Facebook hoax out of the water in terms of reach.

On Feb. 3, a user posted a photo of a screenshot on Facebook that claimed Muslims who use their homes as places of worship are exempt from council tax in the United Kingdom. Full Fact reported Feb. 15 that the screenshot depicted a 2013 petition that claimed the exemption did not apply to other religions. But that’s false, the fact-checking charity reported; places of worship can be exempt from council tax, but only if they are officially recognized as such.

Full Fact flagged the false post on Facebook and Poynter could not share it without receiving a warning that it had been debunked.

4. ‘No, US courts have not “confirmed” that the measles vaccine “causes autism”’

Fact: 645 engagements

Fake: 6.8K engagements

This hoax racked up 10 times more Facebook engagements than a fact-check from the Agence France-Presse — and it’s copied verbatim from several other fake news sites around the world.

On Feb. 2, a Facebook page called Health Nutrition posted a false story, originally published in May 2015, that claimed U.S. courts had declared the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine causes autism. AFP debunked the false story Feb. 16, reporting that the court cited in the fake story had not made that determination and that studies have not found a connection between the MMR vaccine and autism.

PolitiFact debunked the same story, albeit in English, just last week, getting far more engagement than the AFP. The AFP flagged the false antivaxxer story on Facebook and Poynter was not able to share it without receiving a warning that it had been debunked.

(Screenshot from Facebook)

5. ‘Did Kurt Cobain predict and express approval of a Donald Trump presidency? No.’

Fact: 362 engagements

Fake: 932 engagements

This hoax didn’t get much traction on Facebook, but it’s a tenacious zombie claim — one that doesn’t die out after being repeatedly debunked.

On Feb. 9, a hyperpartisan pro-Trump Facebook page posted a screenshot of a made-up quote from former Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain. The post claimed that Cobain had predicted and approved of a prospective Trump presidency in 1993. But PolitiFact debunked that Feb. 12, reporting that the fake quote has been circulating since at least 2016 and that many other mainstream news outlets have reported it as false.

PolitiFact flagged the false post on Facebook, and Poynter couldn’t share it without receiving a warning that it had been debunked.