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New Facebook tool aims to connect people to vaccines — but disinformation is rampant

People wait in line to be vaccinated
People wait in line to be vaccinated at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza mall on Thursday.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Facebook this week announced a new tool to help connect people to COVID-19 vaccines. Facebook users aren’t so sure.

Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s founder and chief executive, said the feature will “help bring 50 million people a step closer to getting COVID-19 vaccines” by showing them when and where they can get vaccinated, and providing links to make appointments. The tool will be housed in a “COVID Information Center” in the news feed on Facebook, and will be featured prominently on Instagram as well.

“We’ve already seen people use Facebook to find vaccination appointments, so this should enable millions more people to do the same,” Zuckerberg wrote in a post about the new feature.

Yet tens of thousands of comments below the post showed that securing coveted vaccination appointments is not the only challenge.

Multiple users referred to the vaccines as “poison,” and several described the post as “propaganda.” At least one touted the use of hydroxychloroquine, which has not been proved to reduce mortality from COVID-19.

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Only a minority of commenters appeared to actually be in favor of the COVID-19 vaccine — despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other health agencies confirming that it is a safe and essential tool in the fight against the pandemic, which so far has killed more than 500,000 Americans.

Andrea Beasley, a spokeswoman for Facebook, said the social media giant will be working to expand its efforts to address COVID-19 vaccine misinformation by adding labels to Facebook and Instagram posts that discuss the vaccines, which will include information from the World Health Organization.

“For example, we’re adding a label on posts that discuss COVID-19 vaccine safety that says COVID-19 vaccines go through many safety tests before they’re approved,” she said, adding that the company has also expanded efforts to “remove false claims on Facebook and Instagram” about the virus and vaccines.

Since launching this effort, the company has removed more than 2 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram, Beasley said, the majority of which were previously only subject to warning screens.

The new tool that connects people with appointments was launched in partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital, which helps run the free vaccine finder tool, and will be available in all 50 states.

The company is also offering the tool to other countries that are “ready and interested,” Beasley said. It is supported in 71 languages.

Facebook is also expanding WhatsApp chatbots to help people register for vaccines. Already, parts of Brazil, Indonesia, South Africa and Argentina are using the Facebook-owned messaging platform to provide official vaccination information, according to the company.

But Facebook also has a checkered past with data and security breaches, including a 2018 incident that affected nearly 50 million users.

The new tool will use location data to suggest nearby sites to get a vaccine, Beasley said, but will not collect healthcare data, including whether a person has a qualifying underlying health condition or disability.

“We provide a link to state websites in the tool that have more information on eligibility,” she said. “In addition, we’ll include provider-level eligibility links where available.”

People are being asked to follow an honor system as vaccine supplies remain limited throughout California.

The social media company hopes its massive platform will help address the country’s uneven rollout of the vaccine, and noted that many users have shared information about appointments and vaccinations on the site anyway.

“We’ve already seen people use Facebook to find vaccination appointments, so this should enable millions more people to do the same,” it said in a news release.

The tool arrives as millions of Californians are vying for appointments amid limited supplies. This week, the state expanded its eligibility list by more than 4 million people, and dozens of counties moved into less restrictive tiers within the state’s reopening system.

As of Wednesday, the state was administering an average of 286,921 doses a day over the last seven days, for a total of more than 12.6 million doses to date, according to The Times tracker. Roughly 21.6% of Californians have received at least one dose.

Experts say about 85% of Americans will need to be vaccinated to bring the COVID-19 pandemic under control.

“The data shows the vaccines are safe and they work,” Zuckerberg said in his post. “They’re our best hope for getting past this virus and getting back to normal life.”


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