By Prof. Kalina Bontcheva, University of Sheffield and Claire Pershan, Policy Coordinator at EU DisinfoLab
As a follow-up from our earlier investigation, here we examine the subsequent question of how anti-vaccine disinformation spreads in countries where Facebook does not have independent third-party fact-checkers.
- This study of anti-vaxx disinformation in Bulgaria uncovered many narratives that had already been debunked by fact-checkers in other countries: we find that 97% of all anti-vaxx posts in our sample did not have any fact-check labels and were still live despite clearly violating Facebook’s policies against vaccine misinformation.
- On March 17th (just after we completed our research) Facebook announced changes to its policies governing Groups with respect to moderation, limiting reach, putting users on probation, and even banning them for violating the platform’s policies. When we assessed the impact of this policy in Bulgaria, we found no apparent evidence of restrictions or penalties. Rather, we found many new anti-vaxx posts perpetuating the same narratives.
- In addition to the recurring narratives that had already been debunked by fact-checkers in other countries, we also found a wide range of “home-grown” disinformation narratives. This highlights the need for localised policies, local capacity and local expertise – all of which require civil society support.
- Facebook must step up its efforts in Bulgaria and in countries like it – countries where the company has no independent fact-checking partners but where vaccine disinformation (and other kinds of disinformation) spread on the platform unchecked.
- As a first step, and within its commitments to the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, the company should provide disaggregated data by member state across the EU, demonstrating how its policies interact with each national context and how it is collaborating with local fact-checkers and civil society.
We chose Bulgaria as our case study since it is an EU member state and also due to the fact that Bulgarian uses a Cyrillic script, which may make posts harder to moderate using Facebook’s tools, which were originally developed for Latin-script based languages (such as English, French, and German).
Between 10 January and 28 February 2021, we identified over 12 public Bulgarian Facebook Groups dedicated to COVID-19 and vaccine-related topics, with names which clearly indicate their anti-vaccine and conspiracy nature. All of these Group names clearly violate the current Facebook policies but, according to CrowdTangle as of 14 March 2021, they were all active on the platform. Some of the most popular ones are below (translated from Bulgarian):
- Against the 5G network in Bulgaria (also contains anti-vaccination posts) – 15,808 members;
- The hoax COVID-19 – 4,429 members;
- Bulgarians against the vaccine – 2,726 members;
- Let’s denounce the hoax COVID 19 – 2,529 members;
- Vaccines – I have the right to choose – 1,890 members;
- Against compulsory COVID-19 vaccination – 1,013 members;
- Coronavirus – yet another world-wide scam – 480 members;
- Vaccines AGAINST – 79 members;
- No to the COVID-19 vaccine – 69 members;
- The Hoax COVID-19, 20, 21 – 68 members.
For our qualitative analysis we then selected a random sample of 100 posts from these groups, that were related to COVID-19 vaccination and were posted between 1 December 2020 and 14 March 2021. Among them, 97% were available without fact-check warning as of 14 March 2021, 2% carried fact-check warnings (due to posts by users from other countries that shared the same videos), and 1% had been removed.
Due to the multi-national scope of the 74 IFCN-published false claims examined in our previous study, we were only able to locate posts propagating 11 of these claims. Among them, the false claim that attracted the most interactions in the Bulgarian sample (9753 in total) was a still available debunked video of Kamala Harris’s vaccination being fake, which did not carry a warning label.
We also identified posts spreading the false claim that the US nurse Tiffany Dover had died after receiving the Pfizer vaccine (544 interactions in our sample). The third most prominent set of false claims referred to Robert F. Kennedy Jr and the related https://childrenshealthdefense.org website. (As of publication this his Facebook account is still live)
For each post in our random sample, we coded the country of origin of the disinformation claim and the linked content (photo, video, blog post, newsmedia, etc). Where a post would share content from another country, but with additional narrative added by the Bulgarian user who posted it, both sets of countries were coded.
As can be seen from the graph above, the vast majority of false claims originated from Bulgaria itself, followed by false claims/content from the United States of America, Germany, UK, Russia, Italy, Spain, and India. Some of the most engaged with US-originating content were reshares of already debunked videos, but also content promoted by Judy Mikovits, Robert F. Kennedy Jr, and several US blogs and websites.
Interestingly, in the process of studying a news article that originated in Germany and had been posted with an anti-vaxx narrative in Bulgaria, we uncovered several German anti-vaxx Facebook posts, which were still live, and were shared in groups with translated names such as “Against the COVID-19 vaccine” (1.8k members), “Against People’s Deception” (4.7k members), “Peaceful protest for our citizens’ rights” (8.4k members).
With respect to the false claims and evidence originating in Bulgaria, they focused on many of the same categories (e.g. the vaccine is dangerous), but included evidence provided by local low credibility online sites (sites branding themselves as news media), local doctors, and politicians. Where cases of death, bad side effects, or vaccine refusal were discussed, they were predominantly of Bulgarian vaccine recipients, with the exception of Kamala Harris, Tiffany Dover, and the Pfizer CEO whose decision to wait until his age group was eligible for vaccination was being cast as vaccine refusal on grounds of the Pfizer vaccine being unsafe. In the latter case, authoritative information sources were cited as evidence, but they were framed in a false narrative.
The graph below shows the distribution of the high level categories of vaccine disinformation in our sample.
As in our first study, the “vaccines are dangerous” narrative remains the dominant category (53%), but the prevalence of these false claims in Bulgarian was 16% lower than in our international sample above. Frequently peddled false claims related to the vaccine being unsafe because it was developed too quickly, and risked causing deaths, cancer, HIV, convulsions, and other dangerous side effects, and that it contained dangerous ingredients, that is altered our DNA, and that it contains nanoparticles which are related to plots for world domination and control. Due to the pro-Russian sentiment in the country, there were also posts asserting that only the Russian Sputnik-V vaccine is safe.
The second most dominant category of false claims relate to “vaccines as an evil plan” (31%) – this was also the case in our previous study (28%). The most prevalent false claims related to deep state conspiracies were again those identified in our previous study, including Bill Gates, profiting from the vaccine, government-sanctioned genocide/massive vaccine experiment, etc. However, there were also some more local protagonists which included the European Commission, the Bulgarian government, and the Bulgarian prime minister.
The harmful medium- and long-term impact of having such anti-government and deep state disinformation openly available in these Bulgarian anti-vaxx and COVID-19 conspiracy groups should not be underestimated.
The vaccine as a useless cure for COVID-19 was present in 6% of the false claims in our sample. Specifically we also separated false claims related to infringement of citizen liberties and freedom, e.g. through mandatory vaccination, which constituted 4%. There were also posts that made sexist claims aimed at discrediting a female Bulgarian doctor who was trying to promote vaccination.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Our study of anti-vaxx disinformation in Bulgaria until 14 March 2021 uncovered many narratives that had already been debunked by fact-checkers in other countries, as well as a wide range of “home-grown” disinformation narratives. The most striking finding was that 97% of all anti-vaxx posts included in our study did not have any fact-check labels and were still live despite clearly violating Facebook’s policies against vaccine misinformation.
The November 2020 Facebook transparency report to the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation states that Facebook removed 35,000 pieces of content under their Misinformation and Harm policy. However, we found that during the same 30 day period, there were 4,900 posts in six of the most prolific Bulgarian anti-vaxx, anti-COVID, and anti-5G Groups, which attracted over 102,000 interactions (in a country of just over 7 million residents).
More recently, on March 17th (just after we completed our research) Facebook announced changes to its policies governing Groups with respect to moderation, limiting reach, putting users on probation, and even banning them for violating the platform’s policies. In order to verify whether these changes had an impact, we revisited those Bulgarian anti-vaxx and COVID-19 conspiracy public Groups again on 6 April 2021 and found no apparent evidence of restrictions or penalties. There were still many new anti-vaxx posts from the past week, perpetuating many of the anti-vaxx narratives we uncovered in the first half of March (pre Group policy changes).
Our research is clear evidence that, in countries where Facebook has no independent fact-checking partners, vaccine disinformation remains prolific and spreads unchecked on the platform. This is one case study, but Bulgaria is by no means the only country neglected by Facebook’s moderation efforts and failed by its policies.
Facebook has committed to addressing disinformation in all EU member states through the EU Code of Practice on Disinformation, and this research shows that these commitments are not equally or adequately satisfied across the block. We urge Facebook to step up its efforts in Bulgaria but also in countries like it – smaller language markets where the company may feel it has less to gain, but where the health and safety of citizens and governments has much to lose. As a preliminary effort, the company should commit to providing disaggregated data by member state across the EU, showing clearly how its policies interact with each national context and how it is collaborating with fact-checkers and civil society actors based in that country. The prevalence of “home grown” narratives, in addition to localised versions of global disinformation narratives, reinforces the necessity of localised policies, local capacity and local expertise – all of which require civil society support.
The Digital Services Act and the revised Code of Practice on Disinformation provide an opportunity to remedy this situation across the EU. European lawmakers should ensure that the revised Code of Practice on Disinformation requires all platform signatories to provide data disaggregated by member state and language market. Signatories should report on the resources they devote to trust and safety, fact-checking, content moderation, and to civil society generally in each member state, and on the impact of these partnerships and commitments. Platforms should also provide data and insights on how many people have been reached by disinformation (the reach of disinformation, not in addition to the reach of ‘authoritative content’), with a view to better understanding and mitigating the impact of disinformation. Meanwhile the Digital Services Act should ensure that Digital Service Coordinators at national level have a clear process in place to guarantee the formal implication of local civil society actors, such as Trusted Flaggers for Disinformation.