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'Vaccine Talk' Facebook Group Is A Carefully Moderated Forum For Vaccine Questions

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kate Bilowitz of Oakland, Calif., works full-time and is a mother. She has a hobby of sorts during these often-contentious times that's made her a source of information.

KATE BILOWITZ: I'm kind of, you know, the vaccine person in my circle of friends and in my family. So when people have questions, they'll come to me and ask me.

SIMON: Kate Bilowitz is one of the moderators of a private Facebook group called Vaccine Talk.

And a moment to remind you now that Facebook is one of NPR's underwriters. The platform has been criticized this week after The Wall Street Journal reported on how it allows its algorithms to promote misinformation, among other things.

Kate Bilowitz has been in other Facebook vaccine groups and was unhappy with how they were run. She says that's why her group is heavily moderated by real people who screen members and what they write.

BILOWITZ: We're a 24-hour group, so we do have, you know, moderators on at all times of the day or night. When people ask to join the group, we have to process those requests. Also, we review all posts. We really just don't want people insulting each other. We want to get people out of their echo chambers and start talking to each other.

SIMON: Kate Bilowitz created Vaccine Talk a couple of years ago after a measles outbreak at Disneyland made her curious about why some people were against vaccines. Her group now has about 70,000 members from almost a hundred countries and attracts many who are skeptical and undecided about getting all kinds of shots - HPV, measles, flu, shingles and now COVID vaccines.

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BILOWITZ: The people in the group come from all different walks of life. Commonly we get mothers. Especially, we get a lot of women who are, you know, pregnant, nursing or thinking about becoming pregnant just because of the rumors that are going around that the vaccine can cause all sorts of ailments, especially regarding a woman's fertility.

So the process to engage somebody who is concerned about vaccines - we would encourage them to make a post in the group expressing what it is that they're concerned about, why they're feeling that way and what specific questions they have. Then we would encourage the group members to provide them with either evidence showing that, you know, what they're concerned about is not true or evidence showing that there's nothing to be concerned about.

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BILOWITZ: We also require that if people are going to post a link to something that they give us a little bit of commentary about it. That cuts down on spamming. And we give people 24 hours in order to provide their evidence for their claims. So anyone in the group can ask for evidence. And once evidence has been requested, that poster has 24 hours to give that evidence to that person. Then it's up to the members in the group to evaluate that source and tell the member who provided it why it's a good source or why it's a bad source. And I think that's really educational for a lot of people who have maybe never been challenged in that way before.

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BILOWITZ: The biggest challenge that we face right now is dealing with Facebook's content moderation. It's an ongoing struggle. Facebook's algorithm can't understand the difference between something that's posted with the intention of spreading misinformation and something that's posted with the intention of debunking or critiquing it. And what Facebook flags us for - it's very inconsistent. The group was temporarily disabled yesterday for about three hours. So this is something that, you know, kind of keeps me up at night. I worry about what's going to happen to the group.

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BILOWITZ: We have been keeping track of people who join the group as either anti-vaccine or on the fence. And we are seeing people's minds change. We get sometimes messages from people or people will comment in the group stating that. We kind of celebrate it. We say, you know, we helped this person. We have documented over 400 of these people.

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BILOWITZ: Empathy is critical to this work. I don't think you could do this if you didn't care about people. I think all of our moderators and myself - we all care very deeply about what we're doing. There's always going to be a conversation about vaccines, and I just want to continue the group and to grow it to help get the correct information to people to help them feel confident in their decision to get vaccinated. That's how we're going to end this pandemic.

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SIMON: Kate Bilowitz of Oakley, Calif., co-founder of the Facebook group Vaccine Talk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.