Facebook releases transparency report on misinformation following push from the White House, with surprising findings

The report comes amid the White House's push for social media platforms to clamp down on misinformation.

Hannah Nightingale Washington DC

On Saturday, Facebook published a transparency report for the first quarter of the year that found an article originally linking a doctor's death to the COVID-19 vaccine was the most popular link open the platform during that timeframe.

The report, obtained by The Washington Post, comes after criticism from President Joe Biden and top White House officials alleging that the social media platform has allowed misinformation regarding the COVID-19 vaccine to spread.

Facebook released the report after shelving it for some time to push back against the criticism, but said that what constitutes as misinformation is often less clear-cut as it seems.

The top viewed link was an article from The South Florida Sun Sentinel, originally distributed by the Chicago Tribune. It talks about the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's investigation into the death of a South Florida doctor who passed away just two weeks after receiving his first dose of the vaccine.

An update to the article found that the doctor had passed away "from a condition that causes internal bleeding." The medical examiner's report said that there wasn't enough evidence to either rule out or confirm a link between his death and the vaccine.

The article was factual, and its distribution on Facebook's platform follow its stance that it would take down outright false information about COVID-19 and the vaccine, but would not suppress conversations about factual articles, according to The Washington Post.

The release of the report comes just one day after the New York Times reported that senior executives had withheld the report.

According to The Washington Post, executives had been debating for months whether to release this report and other information. Debates removed around "whether releasing certain data points were likely to help or hurt the company's already-battered public image. In numerous instances, the company held back on investigating information that appeared negative," a person familiar with the company's thinking told The Washington Post.

Further pressure to release the report came back in July, when President Biden accused the platform and others of "killing people" for spreading vaccine misinformation. The Surgeon General had called said misinformation an "urgent threat."

Facebook originally wanted to share only the data that cast a positive light on the company, but the White House pushed further, demanding data from the platform about the extent of misinformation on Facebook.

In a statement, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said it had "considered making the report public earlier but since we knew the attention it would garner, exactly as we saw this week, there were fixes to the system we wanted to make." He did not elaborate on the fixes, only saying that one item involved fixing a technical bug.

On Saturday evening, Stone said in tweets posted that "given the interest in the first version we did not release, we've decided just to make it public. It's not gleaming, but we're trying to make progress."

In the case of the Sun Sentinel article, Stone said it "does illustrate just how difficult it is to define misinformation."

While noting that the Sun Sentinel article was viewed 53,815,255 times, the top URL views accounted for just 0.057 percent of all content views.

Overall, the most-viewed posts accounted for just 0.05 percent of all of Facebooks posts during that quarter.

Other top links included links to UNICEF, The Washington Post, ABC News, and NBC News.


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