Big Brother, Big Tech: Feds use Facebook to study COVID vaccine, testing, and mask messaging

NIH and medical research institutions funded or sponsored a dozen studies involving Facebook with targets include Latinos, African Americans, holiday travelers, states with lower COVID vaccination rates and even Mayan-language speakers.

Published: December 29, 2022 3:02pm

Updated: December 29, 2022 11:26pm

Legislation that would use federal agencies to "nudge" social media platforms to reduce the spread of "harmful content" isn't going anywhere in the waning days of the 117th Congress. 

As evidenced by the ongoing release of the "Twitter Files," however, that's no impediment to the government — and the research universities that so heavily depend on federal funding — enlisting Big Tech to promote favored narratives and throttle competing arguments on contentious topics.

Federal agencies and U.S. universities together have funded or sponsored a dozen studies mentioning Facebook and COVID-19, according to the National Institutes of Health's database.

While some concern behaviors and health outcomes affected by the early pandemic, such as ways to increase cancer screening and "help-seeking behavior" for mental health problems, others promote government-approved messages on COVID interventions such as vaccines, testing, mask-wearing and social distancing.

NIH, for instance, funded studies targeting the Oregon Latino community as well as the 19 states with first-dose COVID vaccination rates under 60% as of fall 2021. 

The 3,600-participant Latino study, started in February 2021 and is estimated to close June 30. It is currently marked "active, not recruiting." Run by the University of Oregon, it says Latinos represent 13% of the Beaver State but 44% of COVID cases. 

The Facebook element of the study is part of the control group, which receives Facebook ads and other "strategies that are typically conducted by county and community-based organizations that serve under-represented groups to notify people of testing opportunities related to COVID-19." 

The experimental group features a trusted "paid Promotor" in each community hosting a testing site. It receives "psycho-education to increase knowledge about COVID-19 and the benefits of testing" as well as "motivational interviewing" and "emotional support" to overcome "barriers to testing." Promoters will also provide on-site instruction on "effective mask wearing, hand washing, and physical distancing, as well as the importance of repeated testing and vaccines."

The other NIH-funded study featured direct participation by Facebook along with MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Johns Hopkins University and Massachusetts General Hospital. It only lasted about a month starting in December 2021 and listed vaccine booster uptake as a "primary outcome measurement." That study involved three treatment groups without a control group.

The first showed Facebook-comped vaccination ads twice a week to "a large number of Facebook users," hosted on the "Doctors for Coronavirus Prevention" page. They feature a health professional "normally wearing a white coat or scrubs" who reads "very short scripts directly onto the camera," and can be shared with others. 

"This Thanksgiving, the best way to show your love is to stay home," the given example from Nov. 13, 2020 says. "If you do visit, wear a mask at all times."

The second group was composed of "vaccine ambassadors" recruited via Facebook ads to spread the gospel of repeat inoculation to friends, family and community and encourage them to become ambassadors. The influencers could share their contact information to be "entered into prize lotteries … receive reminders to share content with others" and participate in followup surveys. 

The third group, identified as "Gossips," received an altered version of the second group's Facebook recruitment ads asking them to "share the invitation with people they know who are often the source of important news or information."

The Doctors for Coronavirus Prevention Project also came up a year earlier in a non-federal study sponsored by the nonprofit National Bureau of Economic Research, with collaboration by the same universities except for Johns Hopkins.

The "Thanksgiving / Christmas Messaging Campaign" appears to use the same videos as in the NIH-funded study, urging viewers across 13 states to avoid holiday travel or at least wear a mask. The treatment group of around 20 million Facebook users saw the ads three times in two weeks, and the control group did not. 

The researchers excluded several dozen counties from the Christmas campaign due to "potential negative impacts in rural, conservative areas resulting from polarization in the wake of the 2020 presidential election."

George Washington University sponsored a January-April 2022 study seeking to overcome vaccine hesitancy "fueled by the proliferation of vaccine misinformation on social media" by "directly address[ing] the gist of their concerns in an empathetic, non-judgmental manner," rather than "debunking" purported falsehoods.

The experimental group received "gist-based messages" and participated in "moderated group discussions in a private Facebook group," while the control group simply received a link to Facebook's official COVID information center. All were unvaccinated and frequent Facebook users.

Historically black Meharry Medical College and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, known for its high-profile television advertising spending, also studied how to overcome vaccine hesitancy specifically among African Americans, whose COVID inoculation rates lag behind other racial groups.

The research started in May 2021 and is currently marked "enrolling by invitation," with 300 participants across one treatment and two control groups, according to the study summary. 

Over six months, the treatment group received "a multi-layered, social marketing campaign which is deemed culturally appropriate," called "YourCoViDVaxFacts." It included Facebook and YouTube as well as radio, TV and newspaper ads.

Participants received a link to a website with "the look and feel of an app, but without requiring the user to download anything to the phone," which prompted them to select "their top concerns from a list." They received a "corresponding educational message" based on their answers.

Stanford and the University of California Davis not only left the country but also modern languages for a March-April 2022 study targeting "widespread vaccine hesitancy among Indigenous communities in Guatemala, fueled by mistrust in the health system, lack of official information, and the circulation of myths and misinformation."

The study used Facebook ads to promote animated videos across the Central American country that were "visually identical" but differed by language: Spanish and the Mayan K'iche' and Kaqchikel languages. The videos provided "a basic overview of the science" and addressed "prevalent myths and misinformation being shared in target communities."

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