(Image: Supplied)

The number of Australians joining anti-vaccine Facebook groups filled with COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracy theories has exploded in the past year, with their membership nearly tripling according to a new report.

This drastic increase from groups spreading potentially harmful medical misinformation and conspiracy theories has happened despite the platform’s repeated promises to crack down on such content.

Reset Australia released its Anti-vaccination & vaccine hesitant narratives in Australian Facebook Groups report this morning.

Researchers for the group used social media analysis tool CrowdTangle to track the progress of 13 public Facebook groups between January 2020 and March 2021. These groups ranged from established, larger anti-vaccine groups to smaller groups that popped up in reaction to Australia’s COVID-19 public health measures.

They found that the groups grew by 280% to more than 115,000 members over that period. The biggest spikes in activity happened during lockdown periods and following the approval and rollout of the COVID-19 vaccines in Australia.

Reset Australia’s executive director Chris Cooper noted that this surge in growth happened as Australians grew more hesitant about vaccines.

“Reset Australia’s research shows a direct correlation between surging anti-vaxx misinformation on Facebook and Australia’s growing vaccine hesitancy,” he said in a statement.

Undermining the truth about vaccines

Reset Australia researchers delved into what kind of content proved popular in these groups. What they found was hundreds of mentions of unproven or disproven COVID-19 treatments, concerns about mandatory vaccination programs, and conspiracy theories such as the ‘great reset‘.

These groups also functioned as a conduit to connect their members to a global network of conspiracy pages, too. The report showed that group members frequently posted content from international sources, featuring international figures (like Dr Fauci) and about international events.

This analysis barely scrapes the surface of anti-vaccine content online. The report’s authors note that this analysis was limited to just public Facebook groups, ignoring the wild, subterranean world of private groups and other Facebook pages and users also spreading vaccine misinformation.

(It’s also worth mentioning methodological limitations of the research: the number of group members is an imperfect proxy for how many Australians are joining the groups because group membership can overlap and there’s no way to know the nationality of people joining these Australian-led groups.)

Facebook has promised to crack down on anti-vaxxer content and COVID-19 conspiracy content — in 2019, 2020 and in 2021. Needless to say, its efforts to eradicate such content have been unsuccessful.

It’s also exceedingly easy to find anti-vaccine content on other major platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Instagram, and it’s rife on alt-tech platforms like BitChute, Parler and Gab.

So, what can be done to address the problem? Reset Australia’s Cooper suggests one way to start understanding the full scale of anti-vaxxer content on social media could be to force companies to start publishing a “live list”, an aggregated list of the most popular URLs related to COVID-19 being shared across all public and private parts of the platform.

This, he said, would at least allow health authorities and their communities to learn which conspiracy narratives are emerging.

“A livelist would begin to quantify the extent of misinformation and help us target appropriate misinformation to disrupt the conspiratorial feedback loop,” Cooper said.

Vaccine hesitancy and skepticism isn’t solely caused by social media. But the amount of anti-vaxxer content is both an indicator and an amplifier of health misinformation that’s making our communities sick.