Even in a plague-free year, moderating a Facebook group for parents could be hard work.
“In 2016 we had a ton of drama,” said Sandra Zichermann, founder of The MOM Rant and Rave Facebook group. But even an election year couldn’t match the clamor that has set in with COVID-19. “You have a group with so many divergent opinions and it has escalated now because of the pandemic,” Zichermann said.
It’s not just the imagination of moderators: Parent-focused Facebook groups have grown increasingly tense during the pandemic, according to a new study from George Washington University. The study, which examined a wide range of parent Facebook groups with nearly 100 million combined users, has tracked the groups’ links to fringe and conspiratorial pages since the start of the pandemic. The result showed a clear shift towards health misinformation.
The trend has sent some parents to anti-vaccine burrows and moderators like Zichermann are fighting to keep the peace as vaccine debates rock their communities.
“If we see it’s going crazy, we just close the thread,” she told The Daily Beast. “This is how we operate in my group.
The GWU study showed increased overlap in the COVID era between parent groups and Facebook pages that promote 5G and chemtrail conspiracy theories. But parents aren’t exactly stepping their feet on the internet’s fringes, noted Neil Johnson, a physics professor who worked on the research.
“It’s not that they have become directly related. Parents are not stupid, ”Johnson told The Daily Beast of the links between parent groups and conspiratorial groups. “There was a bridge that formed between them, especially during COVID, and that was alternative health. “
“Someone who was pregnant but had other children was asking other moms for advice on how to forge immunization records for their child’s school.“
Johnson highlighted the lack of information for parents, who have spent the past two years making decisions under high pressure about in-person schooling, masking and vaccines. Especially in the early days of the pandemic, when facts about the virus were scarce, alternative health pages acted as a beacon of information for families.
“There was a lot of activity in the alternative health communities in terms of boosting the immune system, so you can probably beat something like COVID and then you won’t need a vaccine, and you won’t. of masks. Johnson said. “You don’t really have to worry about it because you’re drinking your carrot juice. “
Unfortunately, carrot juice isn’t enough to stop the virus in its tracks, and alternative health pages have a long history of flirting with conspiratorial groups. In 2019, for example, 20% of top anti-vaccine Facebook posts came from just seven pages. Many of those pages had health-focused names, including Natural News, a notorious conspiracy center that tucks turmeric stories between paranoid screeds about Democrats coming to murder you in your home.
Growing links between Facebook’s parent groups and the alternative health world led to what GWU researchers described as a two-sided disinformation attack. A network of anti-vaccine groups under the radar provided parents with a constant stream of false COVID facts, as pre-COVID conspiracy pages hammered their new parental audience with false information about chemtrails and climate change.
Zichermann said some vaccine opponents found her on Instagram, where she creates popular parental content. In general, she said, she chooses not to engage in anti-vaccine comments. But on Facebook, she and her moderation team are trying to maintain a balance between free speech and the war of flames.
“Our rules are very clear: if you start the drama, we will end the drama,” she said. “Of course, it’s going to get overkill if anti-vaccines say this and that. We try to play it down. We try to keep a pin even, but hit while the iron is hot” when it comes to removing incendiary poles.
Even expectant parents are not necessarily immune to misinformation about COVID-19. A Washington post Last month’s report revealed widespread vaccine hoaxes in the chat sections of pregnancy apps.
“Someone who was pregnant but had other children was asking other moms for advice on how to forge immunization records for their child’s school,” one user of the pregnancy app said. to To post.
“Most antivax and microchip conspiracy commentary I’ve ever seen,” tweeted another user of the pregnancy app.
Some of the pregnancy apps have reported improvement after stepping up their moderation efforts, in a higher budget version of volunteer moderation that Zichermann and his fellow administrators do on Facebook.
“If we see him going crazy, we just close the thread. This is how we do in my group.“
Although the tactic appeared to have helped ease tensions over pregnancy apps, Johnson warned that platforms like Facebook cannot ban their exit from a disinformation crisis, which he compared to a game of Whack-a -mole: for each prohibited page, more hide. out of sight.
Instead, he said GWU research showed promising results when conspiratorial groups were cross-pollinated with Facebook groups who shared their values, but not their conspiracy bias. Groups for parents and groups for dog lovers, he said, often overlap in personality, but dog groups are particularly disinterested in 5G conspiracy theories.
“It’s almost like finding people who have been exposed to COVID in the same way, but who haven’t contracted the disease,” Johnson said. “What Facebook might do is suggest links to other communities that are also exposed to this material and yet are not affected. [about vaccines]. “
He hypothesized that a certain threshold of non-conspiratorial voices could keep the groups grounded.
Even in Zichermann’s parent-focused group, talking about shared struggles kept members afloat and made some parts of Zichermann’s moderating job surprisingly easier.
Amid the solidarity inspired by COVID, “we all come together,” she said. “We’re talking about things that really upset us, trying to find the bright side of it all. “