The Age of Misinformation - An Anti-Vax Facebook Profile in Review:

“I’ve done all the research.”

A phrase we’ve all heard in recent years, popularized by those who refuse to accept the ‘official’ version of events.

New Zealand hasn’t been immune to this mentality. Despite receiving international acclaim for our Covid response, the continued restrictions have seen anti-vaccination and anti-mandate voices grow in size and volume.

In February 2022, a protest planned on a now deleted Facebook group saw thousands amass at the Beehive. These protesters, a self-proclaimed ‘Freedom Convoy’, seemed mostly content to party on parliament grounds. A trip through the packed courtyard would reveal the presence of live music, a tent serving sausages, and the unmistakable stench of weed.

However, the protest was not without conflict. Even prior to the final confrontation, which led to over 100 arrests, a few sparks had hinted at a messy conclusion. It was these sparks that lit parliament grounds ablaze, desperate protesters lighting their own tents on fire as police herded them from the property.

It was a few days prior when I walked through the protest and heard that popular phrase.

“I’ve done all the research.”

It was said by a member of the freedom convoy, eager to spread their message to the general public. They did, however, ask to remain anonymous.

I was watching the protest from a distance, taking notes, when they approached me and defiantly asked if I was writing number plates. I told them I wasn’t, rather I was writing an article on the protests.

At this point, I wasn’t sure how they’d react. I expected anger. The local news had been lambasting the protesters for weeks. Instead, they were ecstatic. They wanted the opportunity to spread their side of the story.

“We’ve been misrepresented by the mainstream media,” they insisted, “this is a peaceful protest.”

This wasn’t an entirely unfair point. Many of the people there had no violent intentions, and later reports by the NZ group ‘Disinformation Project’ revealed that Far-Right groups had infiltrated the protest leadership and directed the event towards conflict.

Their point was, however, undermined by the disheveled old man who walked by howling “Hang Jacinda!”

The protester then revealed why they’d come to the event; they’d been fired from their job for refusing to get the vaccine, which they believed was part of a grand conspiracy headed by “Big Pharma, Big Tech,” and numerous governments worldwide.

When I asked to see their alleged research, they took me to a familiar place: Facebook. The platform has been under constant scrutiny in recent years, particularly due to the facilitation of the spread of disinformation.

The protester’s page was no different; littered with content ranging from hateful to comical. Numerous posts attacked Jacinda Ardern as a both ‘demonic’ and ‘crooked,’ while suggesting she is acting as a proponent of the global communist agenda.

Other posts were less confrontational, one such post suggesting that the protesters make-shift camp was a potential solution to soaring house prices.

Others again were self-incriminatory, as the protester claimed to have made several attempts to bribe vaccination clinics for a vaccine pass.

However, the page lacked the one thing we were promised: research. It instead consisted of a series of dubious links leading to websites ripe with misinformation and others spreading outright lies.

This has become all too common on Facebook. The social media platform has faced heavy scrutiny in recent years for facilitating radicalization and allowing the spread of misinformation.

The website saves comprehensive information on all its users, collecting immense amounts of data through your engagement. Not only does it track your usage on the platform itself, but the service also has access to your usage on Instagram, Messenger, and WhatsApp, amongst other.

This data mining forced founder Mark Zuckerberg to testify to US congress in 2018, following major data leaks. These leaks were used by Cambridge Analytica, a British consulting firm, to micro-target specific audiences during the 2016 US election.

Users deemed vulnerable or susceptible to influence were targeted by specialised ads, created based upon the incredibly specific knowledge provided by Facebook. This same information is used for Facebook algorithms and ads, allowing businesses to target you using intimate knowledge from your life.

More worryingly, it allows dangerous misinformation to be spread, and radicalizes vulnerable Kiwis.

In 2020, documents leaked from Facebook revealed that it isn’t only outside organisations targeting you — the platforms own algorithm is complicit in spreading misinformation. The documents told the story of ‘Carol’, a dummy account made to test the algorithms propensity for spreading misinformation .

Carol was initially made to follow only a few accounts, including Donald Trump, Melania Trump, and Fox News. What followed, researchers noted, was “a barrage of extreme, conspiratorial, and graphic content.”

With two days, the algorithm recommended Carol engage with groups associated with the conspiratorial cult QAnon. These groups spouted QAnon’s alt-right doctrine, which asserts that Trump is the world’s last defender against a cabal of cannibalistic, paedophilic democrats. Facebook has since made efforts to scrub QAnon content from the platform.

Carol’s journey serves as a cautionary tale — the story of what happens when you go down the deep dark rabbit hole that is social media algorithms.

The magnitude of data mining by Facebook and associated risk has been the source of great discomfort for many users. It’s prompted many people to quit the platform — which suffered its first ever decrease in users in late 2021.

The platforms propensity for spreading misinformation and manipulating users remains globally relevant coming into 2022. It forces all of us to question our engagement on the internet — do we have control over what we’re seeing? Are we seeing the truth? Is there even a truth anymore?

I don’t have the answers. I only have a recommendation.

Do your own research.

Wellington based freelance journalist.

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