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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Meet the doctors' group spreading covid conspiracy theories in plain sight on Facebook

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Below: Senators are shifting the spotlight to how TikTok, YouTube and Snapchat affect kids, but there's more trouble for Facebook elsewhere. First up: 

Meet the doctors' group spreading covid conspiracy theories in plain sight on Facebook

A group of health-care professionals known for spreading conspiracy theories about covid-19 has largely avoided restrictions on Facebook, where its members have reached millions of users with their messages of coronavirus denialism and vaccine skepticism, according to a new report shared exclusively with The Technology 202. 

The so-called World Doctors Alliance, which describes itself as a nonprofit “with a view to ending all [covid-19] lockdowns,” saw its members’ Facebook followings grow by more than 100-fold since the beginning of the pandemic, researchers at the London-based think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) found.

In that time, their posts — which ISD researchers found frequently contain falsehoods or conspiratorial claims about covid-19 and vaccines — have drawn at least 5.7 million interactions and their videos have been viewed more than 21 million times on the platform. The group and its members were mentioned in nearly 90,000 Facebook posts from January 2020 to June 2021.

Facebook spokesperson Aaron Simpson said the platform removed the group’s main page, the World Freedom Alliance, in July “for repeatedly violating our COVID-19 policies.” But the report shows the group and its individual members, many of whom remain active on the site, were able to gain significant traction during the pandemic before Facebook took down the main account. 

Aoife Gallagher, the case study’s lead author, said the report shows Facebook’s policies against coronavirus misinformation are falling short of protecting users against frequent rule-breakers.

“Here is a group that seems to be just disregarding all those policies and getting away with it pretty easily,” she said during an interview Tuesday.

Gallagher said the group’s conspiratorial messaging is particularly problematic because their medical background grants them an air of legitimacy online that users might not question.

“The credentials that they have given this veneer of credibility and kind of allow them to manipulate people's trust,” she said. 

The World Doctors Alliance did not return a request for comment. 

Not all of the members’ posts are misleading or conspiratorial — some are as harmless as selfies. But the most popular posts tied to the members often touted unproven covid cures, claimed masking is dangerous, called the virus a scam or likened it to the flu.

Researchers at ISD looked at the 50 posts mentioning the World Doctors Alliance and its members that users engaged with the most on Facebook across four languages and found that a vast majority contained “false, misleading or conspiratorial information” as outlined in Facebook's policies or that contradicted guidance from top public health authorities.

That included 74 percent of those top 50 posts in English, 88 of those in Spanish, 82 percent of those in Arabic and 48 percent of those in German. Those “problematic posts,” as researchers called them, drew nearly a million interactions and more than 23 million video views. 

Facebook’s Simpson said the company “will continue to remove pages, groups or accounts that repeatedly violate our policies.”

Researchers also found that while Facebook partners with groups to add fact-checks to misleading medical posts, few fact checks mentioning the World Doctors Alliance exist across major languages. (Since 2016, the company has partnered with dozens of news organizations and nonprofits to add context to misleading content on its sites.) 

Researchers found only 61 fact-checks mentioning the group in English, and there weren’t any in Romanian, Hungarian, Swedish or Italian, despite there being thousands of posts referencing the World Doctors Alliance in those languages.

The report concluded that Facebook’s enforcement has been ill-suited to meet the challenge posed by the group because purveyors of misinformation “produce content in such vast quantities that debunking claims or posts one by one presents an almost impossible task for fact-checkers.” And it said it showed there’s “significant gaps in Facebook’s fact-checking program in languages other than English.”

“It's really just a continuation of the same kind of the same stories I suppose that we've been hearing for the past couple of weeks about Facebook's lack of resources that they dedicate to regions, into languages outside of English,” Gallagher said.

Recent disclosures by Facebook whistleblowers Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang about how the company prioritizes enforcement in major markets, such as the U.S., have brought new scrutiny to the platform’s role in policing content around the globe.  

Not only are Facebook and its fact-checking partners missing rule-breaking and misleading posts, researchers found, but they are also failing to hunt down all instances of posts they have already found to be false and add context to them. 

The study found that “speed at which the content spreads and the endless ways it can be clipped, edited and shared, make tracing all instances of problematic content a particular challenge.”

Gallagher said the findings call into question how thorough Facebook’s vetting of content, which relies heavily on automation and artificial intelligence, truly is. 

“What we found was that even videos that had been fact-checked multiple times and that had been uploaded natively to the platform … were not being found by this AI technology,” she said.



This article previously stated that Facebook had applied fact-checks to 61 posts mentioning the World Doctors Alliance in English and none in Romanian, Hungarian, Swedish, or Italian. These numbers refer to fact-checking articles, not fact-checked posts.

Our top tabs

Snapchat, TikTok and YouTube representatives will testify before Congress next week

Lawmakers plan to grill company representatives at an Oct. 26 hearing that will focus on the platforms’ effects on children. A statement by Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the top Republican on the panel, focused on TikTok, signaling that the company could be scrutinized by Republicans at the hearing.

The executives will testify before the panel just weeks after Facebook executive Antigone Davis and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen testified before the committee. It’s the committee’s fourth hearing to “inform legislation and prompt action” by social media companies, subcommittee chairman Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Blackburn said.

Senate Democrats asked Facebook to halt plans to launch cryptocurrency in wake of whistleblower reports

Recent reports about Facebook’s effects on children demonstrate that the company shouldn’t launch its Diem cryptocurrency or Novi digital wallet, the senators wrote. Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Tina Smith (D-Minn.) signed on to the letter, along with Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio).

“Facebook cannot be trusted to manage a payment system or digital currency when its existing ability to manage risks and keep consumers safe has proven wholly insufficient,” they wrote.

The lawmakers released their letter hours after Facebook launched a pilot of Novi in the United States and Guatemala. The company’s support for Diem “hasn’t changed,” Facebook's Financial head David Marcus wrote, announcing the pilot. Novi spokesperson Lauren Dickson said they "look forward to responding to the Committee’s letter.” 

Facebook will pay up to $14 million to settle charges of discriminating against American workers

The agreement comes after the Justice Department sued Facebook in December for allegedly not properly advertising at least 2,600 jobs — and considering applications from U.S. citizens — before offering them to foreigners who the company was sponsoring for green cards that grant permanent residency, David Nakamura and Cat Zakrzewski report. In a settlement with the Labor Department, Facebook agreed to do more to recruit Americans for tech jobs and be subject to scrutiny for up to three years, officials said.

“Facebook is not above the law and must comply with the nation’s federal civil rights laws,” said Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights Kristen Clarke. “Companies cannot set aside certain positions for temporary visa holders because of their citizenship or immigration status.”

Facebook said it believed it “met the federal government’s standards” under federal law but settled the case “to end the ongoing litigation and move forward.” Officials at the company said the number of jobs referenced in the suit are a fraction of the company’s workforce.

Rant and rave

Amazon and Starbucks were in talks to launch a co-branded cafe last year, Business Insider's Eugene Kim reported. Business Insider's Alexei Oreskovic:

Brand Innovators's David Teicher:

Journalist Mike Elgan:

Inside the industry

U.S. closes in on deal this week to halt Europe’s digital taxes (Bloomberg)

Mark Zuckerberg will be added to a Facebook privacy lawsuit. (New York Times)

Jack Ma Leaves China for the First Time Since Regulatory Woes Began (Wall Street Journal)

Competition watch

Britain fines Facebook $70 mln for breaching order in Giphy deal (Reuters)


Facebook is planning to rebrand the company with a new name (Verge)

Apple wants $19 for a cleaning cloth (Motherboard)


  • New York City’s chief technology officer, John Paul Farmer, speaks at an Aspen Institute event about broadband inclusion today at 7 p.m.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee discusses the nomination of Jonathan Kanter, President Biden’s pick to lead the Justice Department’s antitrust division, on Thursday at 9 a.m.
  • The Federal Trade Commission discusses the privacy practices of Internet service providers at an open meeting on Thursday at 1 p.m.
  • Alondra Nelson, deputy director for science and society at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, participates in a Brookings Institution event on technology equity on Thursday at 2 p.m.
  • House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) discusses law enforcement algorithms at a Brookings Institution event on Oct. 25 at 3 p.m.

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