SACHA PFEIFFER From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Sacha Pfeiffer sitting in for Brooke Gladstone. This week, it was deja vu all over again.
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL We're here today because Facebook has shown us once again that it is incapable of holding itself accountable. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER This is Senator Richard Blumenthal speaking at a Senate hearing Thursday, titled Protecting Kids Online, which he organized with help from an anonymous source.
SENATOR BLUMENTHAL This month, a whistleblower approached my office to provide information about Facebook and Instagram. We now have deep insight into Facebook's relentless campaign to recruit and exploit young users. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER The same whistleblower who met with Senator Blumenthal plans to go public later this year. That whistleblower helped trigger weeks of media scrutiny after leaking internal research that became the basis for a series of explosive stories in The Wall Street Journal.
NEWS REPORT The series, called The Facebook Files, is based on the Journal's review of internal company documents.
NEWS REPORT ‘We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls’ is a conclusion that they drew internally and presentED to management.
NEWS REPORT Facebook is now hitting the brakes on an Instagram for kids. As concerns grow over privacy and Instagram's effect on mental health,.
NEWS REPORT If any other company put a product out there and tested it on the market and saw that it then hurt people and then make-- like, what are we? A bunch of guinea pigs? [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER The more journalism about Facebook, the better, but we don't need secretive sources to tell us the company has done great harm. There's been plenty out in the open like the countless Facebook groups that have sprung up to stoke conspiracies about the pandemic. Groups that have begun to shapeshift to reach new audiences and evade the site's ban on anti-vax organizing. Ben Collins of NBC News.
BEN COLLINS They changed the name of the vaccine to dance or hokey pokey or beer to make sure that basic moderation bots don't detect them talking about vaccines. [END CLIP]
SACHA PFEIFFER In February, after years of pressure, Facebook announced it would try to put the kibosh on all anti-vax content, not just COVID misinformation. Now, nearly six months later, America's favorite video site is finally following suit.
BRANDY ZADROZNY YouTube already had a ban in place for COVID vaccine misinformation, and they've had that in place about as long as we've had COVID vaccines.
SACHA PFEIFFER Brandy Zadrozny, NBC reporter and former On the Media guest host, reported on the story this week.
BRANDY ZADROZNY But this ban expanded that scope, and so what they said was they were going to ban from the platform, all vaccine misinformation. So you think about the OG vaccine misinformation, which is that vaccines cause autism, childhood vaccines cause cancer. None of it is welcome on the platform.
SACHA PFEIFFER And what's interesting is that it seems that the anti-vaxxers saw COVID vaccines as an opportunity to amplify their larger message about vaccines in general.
BRANDY ZADROZNY 100 percent. So we started tracking the normal childhood vaccine misinformers, the anti-vaxxers, right when COVID hit – like March 2020, when most people were just like: What is COVID? Should I stay home? What am I going to do about work? When people are talking about whether they should wipe down their groceries, the the hardcore anti-vaxxers saw this as a huge opportunity and they were rallying their base. They were gathering again in conferences and discussing how they were going to utilize COVID as an opportunity to expand their messaging to people who hadn't necessarily thought about childhood vaccinations and weren't their usual audience. And they were going to use the fear and uncertainty around COVID and around the coming vaccine to engender fear of all childhood vaccinations. You know, we want to clamp down on them and the platforms say now we're taking a stand, well, I mean, you have to take stock of what you've grown.
SACHA PFEIFFER You recently posed a question on Twitter that I want to pose to you, which is, does this latest move by YouTube to ban these sites actually stand a chance of minimizing the influence of anti-vaxxers? Who you described as, and here's your quote. 'A savvy, financially motivated, opportunistic bunch.'
BRANDY ZADROZNY Yeah, they're really, really good at this. They're just so good at social media. And so I think the hardcore anti-vaxxers who've made money off this movement, they're not going away. I mean, I’ve subscribed to all their newsletters, and so they're going to smaller outlets like Telegram and Rumble. And so they're still going to exist. The question is, how do they get their messaging out to the people who actually power the movement? You know, the moms, the wellness influencers, the so-called 'patriots,' the health freedom people, and I think what we're going to find because they have been so used to evading bans, evading content moderation and finding new creative ways to get the messaging out. I think they'll do that again. I don't think they're going to, you know, pack up their bags and say, well, we had a good run.
SACHA PFEIFFER A Washington Post story about this YouTube ban quoted a UC Berkeley professor and misinformation researcher who said, You create this breeding ground and when you deplatform it, it doesn't go away. They just migrate.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Oh, they absolutely do. I mean, this is a cross-platform problem. And so the answer, it seems, would be for all of the platforms to get together and talk about how they combat a cross-platform problem. That's absolutely not happening. I do know that the platforms are thinking about that, so they're being sort of thoughtful. Facebook, for instance, is thinking about what kind of links get often shared. So if it's Rumble links or these BitChute links or other smaller platform’s links that often share this misinformation, well, then they are working on policies to quiet that noise and maybe show that less prominently in a feed. It's such a huge problem, I can't imagine a fix at all.
SACHA PFEIFFER That's kind of depressing.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Oh, it's the most depressing beat in the world. I mean, it's truly-- I'm looking forward now thinking about what's going to happen in the next month when we have the approval of COVID 19 vaccines for children.
SACHA PFEIFFER Yes, we're potentially just weeks away from the COVID vaccine being approved for young children. How are you expecting the anti-vax movement to react to that?
BRANDY ZADROZNY I don't like to predict the future, but I feel really comfortable doing that here, only because we've seen this playbook play out over a decade, actually since the 70s. And here is what it is: we're going to see a lot of very scary videos of children. The children will be shaking or the children will be in some way sick. And it will convince a lot of people not to give the COVID 19 vaccine to their children. Not because these videos are real or because they're true, but because it's so visceral seeing videos like this that you don't want to take the chance. As a parent, you look at this and it's like, Well, I don't want to do that. They're very convincing. And more than that, it's very hard to moderate these kind of videos because how do I fact check a video of a shaking baby and a mother saying it's because of the COVID vaccine? I don't even know what to tell a platform to do about that. They say that they will moderate firsthand accounts like that, but it just seems very difficult to me and with all of the people now invested in this sort of thing. One researcher described it as terrifying, and I think I absolutely share that point of view
SACHA PFEIFFER Related to the influence that these social media platforms have,The Wall Street Journal recently published a series of articles called The Facebook Files. The overall revelation was that Facebook is quite aware of the harmful effects of its product. Give us a brief overview of what those articles found.
BRANDY ZADROZNY So a lot of the Wall Street Journal reporting wasn't actually new, or not totally new. Parts and pieces had been reported by different outlets over the past several years, but this was a really timely and dramatic packaging of all of the harms from Facebook, and it was really bolstered by these internal documents and they were provided by a whistleblower. And what this did, as you said, was really, I think cement for a big audience that Facebook causes a lot of harms. Facebook knows about those harms. And because it's a trillion dollar business in a lot of cases, it chooses not to address any of them when a response might interfere with its super priority, which has always been its number one priority – and that's growth.
SACHA PFEIFFER It's quite unflattering reporting. How is Facebook responding?
BRANDY ZADROZNY Oh my gosh. They are blowing up. I've-- it's been quite a week for Facebook comms, to be honest. You have communications managers fighting with journalists in the Twitter replies. In one instance, Facebook released a portion of the presentation that the Wall Street Journal was about to release to try to get in front of the story, and it had annotated it itself. You can really tell by Facebook's response to all of this that it really hit a nerve, and by the response, you can tell that Facebook does seem like they are rallying the troops inside, at least in the Executive Suite, and it's definitely a wartime mentality.
SACHA PFEIFFER But Facebook is used to critical media coverage. Why do you think this really riled them up?
BRANDY ZADROZNY It's been a bad couple of weeks. You had the Wall Street Journal Facebook files and then you had another hearing where several really smart researchers who've been trying to do work on Facebook got in front of a committee and said that Facebook cut off their research and doesn't allow researchers to look at data. Basically called them dangerous for democracy. And that's coming on the tail end of all of this news about how they disrupted their CrowdTangle team, which is the team that allowed journalists to take a look under the hood and researchers to take a look under the hood to get data. They do take a lot of hits, but this month has been particularly hit after hit after hit.
SACHA PFEIFFER Brandy, so much of how these companies operate is secret, their algorithms and so forth. Yet we, as we talked about Facebook, knew that its product was causing harm. So naturally, the public might want to know more about how they make decisions, what do they know about the harm of their products? But can we really expect companies to give away their private information, their proprietary data? What's the argument that they should give it up?
BRANDY ZADROZNY I don't expect them to give it up because they are a private trillion dollar company, but you know, this isn't a secret spaghetti sauce. This is a huge communication platform that controls what we see, what we buy, how we feel about ourselves, how we feel about each other, our democracy and on and on and on. So the idea that they can operate totally outside of the public interest in a way that affects us and we can be OK with that, I just don't think that we should rely on them for research. You know, we don't rely on tobacco companies to give us research about how their products affect all of us. We know that now because we had external government agencies investigating it, and I think that that's the moment that we're seeing right now.
SACHA PFEIFFER Brandy, thanks so much for talking about this with us and for, for this reporting you do on this important subject.
BRANDY ZADROZNY Thank you. I appreciate it.
SACHA PFEIFFER Brandy Zadrozny is a senior reporter for NBC News, covering misinformation, extremism and the internet. Coming up, wrestling with how to cover Guantanamo. This is On the Media.