“In 2016, we had a ton of drama,” said Sandra Zichermann, founder of the Facebook group The MOM Rant and Rave. But not even an election year could match the clamor that set in with COVID-19. “You have a group with so many differing opinions and it’s heightened now because of the pandemic,” Zichermann said.
It’s not just moderators’ imaginations: Parent-focused Facebook groups have become quantifiably tenser during the pandemic, a new study from George Washington University shows. The study, which examined a broad swath of parent Facebook groups with nearly 100 million combined users, tracked the groups’ links to fringe and conspiracy pages since the pandemic’s outset. The result showed a clear shift toward health misinformation.
The trend has sent some parents down anti-vaccine rabbit holes, and has moderators like Zichermann fighting to keep the peace as vaccine debates roil their communities.
“If we see it getting crazy, we just shut down the thread,” she told The Daily Beast. “That’s how we do it in my group.”
The GWU study showed an increased COVID-era overlap between parenting groups and Facebook pages that promote conspiracy theories about 5G and chemtrails. But parents aren’t exactly jumping feet-first into the internet’s fringes, noted Neil Johnson, a professor of physics who worked on the research.
“It’s not that they became directly linked. Parents are not dumb,” Johnson told The Daily Beast of connections between parenting groups and conspiracy groups. “There was a bridge that formed between them, particularly during COVID, and that was alternative health.”
Johnson pointed to a dearth of information for parents, who have spent the past two years making high-pressure decisions about in-person schooling, masking, and vaccines. Especially in the pandemic’s early days, when facts about the virus were scant, alternative health pages acted as a beacon of information for families.
“There was a great activity in the alternative health communities in terms of how to boost up the immune system, so that presumably you can beat something like COVID and then you won’t need a vaccine, and you won’t need masks,” Johnson said. “You won’t have to really worry about it because you’re drinking your carrot juice.”
Unfortunately, carrot juice isn’t enough to halt the virus in its tracks—and alternative health pages have a long history of flirtation with conspiracy groups. In 2019, for instance, 20 percent of the top anti-vaccine Facebook posts came from just seven pages. Many of those pages had health-focused names, including Natural News, a notorious conspiracy hub that tucks articles about turmeric in between paranoiac screeds about Democrats coming to murder you in your home.
The growing ties between Facebook’s parenting groups and the alternative health world led to what GWU researchers described as a two-sided misinfo attack. A network of under-the-radar anti-vaccine groups supplied parents with a steady stream of fake COVID facts, while pre-COVID conspiracy pages hammered their new parental audience with bogus information about chemtrails and climate change.
Zichermann said some vaccine opponents have found her on Instagram, where she makes popular parenting content. In general, she said, she opts not to engage with anti-vaccine comments. But on Facebook, she and her moderating team try to keep a balance between free expression and flame wars.
“Our rules are really clear: if you’re gonna start drama, we’re gonna end the drama,” she said. “Of course it’s going to get hyped up if anti-vaxxers come out saying this and that. We try to downplay it. We try to keep an even keel, yet strike while the iron is hot” when it comes to removing incendiary posts.
Not even parents-to-be are necessarily spared from COVID-19 misinformation. A Washington Post report last month found widespread vaccine hoaxes in the discussion sections of pregnancy apps.
“Somebody who was pregnant but had other children was asking other moms for advice on how to forge vaccine documents for their kid’s school,” one pregnancy app user told the Post.
“Most antivax and microchip conspiracy comments ive ever seen,” another pregnancy app-user tweeted.
Some of the pregnancy apps reported an improvement after stepping up their moderation efforts, in a higher-budget version of the volunteer moderating that Zichermann and fellow administrators perform on Facebook.
“If we see it getting crazy, we just shut down the thread. That’s how we do it in my group.”
Although the tactic appears to have helped cool tensions on pregnancy apps, Johnson cautioned that platforms like Facebook cannot ban their way out of a misinformation crisis, which he likened to a game of whack-a-mole: for every banned page, more are lurking out of sight.
Instead, he said the GWU research showed promising results when conspiracy-plagued groups were cross-pollinated with Facebook groups that shared their values, but not their conspiratorial bias. Groups for parents and groups for dog-lovers, he said, often overlap in personality, but the dog groups are notably disinterested in 5G conspiracy theories.
“It’s almost like finding people who’ve been exposed to COVID in the same way, but didn’t get the disease,” Johnson said. “What Facebook could do is suggest links to other communities that are equally exposed to that material and yet are not concerned [about vaccines].”
He theorized that a certain threshold of non-conspiracy voices could keep the groups grounded.
Even in Zichermann’s parent-focused group, talk of shared struggles has kept members afloat—and made parts of Zichermann’s moderating job surprisingly easier.
Amid COVID-inspired solidarity “we’re all coming together,” she said. “We’re talking about things that are really upsetting us, trying to find the silver lining through it all.”