On Facebook, health misinformation is king. And it’s a global problem.

February 28, 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.

Two weeks after technology platforms faced pressure to reduce the reach of anti-vaccine hoaxes, health misinformation is still getting a massive audience on Facebook — and it’s not isolated to any one country.

Last Thursday, Factcheck.org debunked a meme that falsely claimed, in the form of a question, that senior citizens in the United States have to pay for Medicare while undocumented immigrants get it for free. Fact-checkers reported that most seniors don’t have to pay for the government-subsidized healthcare program, and undocumented immigrants aren’t even qualified for it.

Under its partnership with Facebook, Factcheck.org flagged the post as false on the platform, thereby limiting its future reach in the News Feed and appending a warning alerting users that it was false. But the meme, which a Facebook user posted as a text post Jan. 26, still had amassed more than 500,000 likes, shares and comments as of publication. (Disclosure: Being a signatory of the International Fact-Checking Network’s code of principles is a necessary condition for joining the project.)

And the Medicare meme wasn’t the only health-related hoax to get hundreds of thousands of engagements on Facebook this week.

In Argentina, an old false video that claims pricking someone’s fingers and ears during a stroke can save their life went viral again. Fact-checkers at Chequeado debunked the video Feb. 20, reporting that health experts told them there is no scientific basis for the claim. The outlet flagged the story as false as part of its partnership with Facebook.

The hoax had been circulating since at least 2003, when Snopes published a fact check about it. Spanish fact-checking site Maldito Bulo also debunked the hoax, which debunkers call “zombie claims,” in July. But the video still had more than 500,000 engagements on Facebook as of publication.

Health misinformation has been a problem on platforms like Facebook for years — and some are now being pressured into addressing it.

Last week, Pinterest banned searches with the word “vaccine” nearly two years after BuzzFeed News reported antivaxxer hoaxes were a common problem on the platform. Shortly after, YouTube removed ads from anti-vaccine videos and Facebook told CNN that it is planning to take action against similar conspiracies.

“I can’t help but be inspired by the move Pinterest took when confronted with the same question,” Casey Newton, Silicon Valley editor at The Verge, wrote in his newsletter last week. “The only folks who lose in this decision are ones who, if they had their way, would trigger a global health crisis.

But health misinformation isn’t confined to one single platform or country — the problem is global.

In Southeast Asia, spammers on the messaging app Line dupe users into buying bogus health products by promising them digital stickers. In Nigeria, health misinformation ranges from hoaxes claiming that saltwater cures ebola to false cultural beliefs about contraceptives. Then there’s the fact that Pinterest’s ban on vaccine searches reportedly doesn’t work in Spanish or Portuguese.

Bogus health claims are also being spread on encrypted platforms like WhatsApp around the world, making it harder to address them. And without more systemic, internationally inclusive approaches, it’s unlikely that piecemeal censorship policies like those applied to anti-vaccine conspiracies on public-facing social media platforms will scale to the amount of health misinformation out there.

Below is a chart with other 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.