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Anti-vaccine groups turn into “dance parties” on Facebook to avoid detection

Some anti-vaccination groups on Facebook change their names to euphemisms like “Dance Party” or “Diner Party,” and use code words to fit these themes in order to circumvent Facebook bans, as the company tries to crack down on misinformation about covid vaccines19.

The groups, which are largely private and un-searchable but retain large user bases accumulated over the years that Facebook has allowed anti-vaccination content, also swap the language to accommodate new themes and provide feedback. Code captions, according to screenshots provided to NBC News by several members of the groups.

A large dance party group has over 40,000 followers and has stopped allowing new users under public scrutiny. The “Dance Party” backup group, known as the “Dinner Party” and created by the same moderators, has over 20,000 subscribers.

Other anti-vaccine influencers on Instagram use similar language exchanges, for example labeling people vaccinated as “swimmers” and the act of vaccination as joining a “swim club.”

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment, but reported to NBC News the company’s efforts to lead users to authoritative sources on Covid-19 vaccines.

Anti-vaccination groups Facebook and Instagram anti-escape maneuvers intensify as the White House increased pressure on social media platforms to do more to contain misinformation and misinformation about vaccines.

“They are killing people,” President Joe Biden said of Facebook vaccine misinformation on Friday, later softening his language to say he hoped the platform would do more against “outrageous misinformation.”

Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAlister responded on Saturday: “The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”

The back-and-forth has not been lost on people in the anti-vaccine groups. In an article with over 4,000 reactions and 1,000 comments, a “Dance Party” administrator mentioned that the “WH press had a briefing and mentioned some notable groups that had been shut down and some that were beating the system. of bot ”.

Beating Facebook’s moderation system “feels like a badge of honor,” the admin wrote, followed by a crying laughing emoji. At the end of the post, the admin reminded users to stay away from “unapproved words” and directed them to a code caption on the side of the page.

Using code words to circumvent bans is not new to the anti-vaccine community, and it borrows from a playbook that has been used for years by extremists on Facebook and elsewhere. The practice relies heavily on “leetspeak,” or modified language used by coders and gamers who frequently replace letters in words with numbers or symbols during online discussions.

“Vaccine activists have been participating in leetspeak for as long as the Internet has existed,” said Joan Donovan, research director at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. “It’s part of the culture of anti-vaccination campaigners. “

Group members incorporated a range of coded languages ​​to mask their discussions, many of which perpetuate debunked vaccine theories. “To dance” or “to drink beer” means “to be vaccinated”. References to “Pfizer” generally use the terms “pizza” or “Pizza King” and Moderna is referred to as “Moana”. Users generally play around with unofficial language on dance to create a more coded language.

For example, a member of the group said that her husband fell ill after taking a “trip across the country where we spent 2 nights with dancers”, referring to two people who had just been vaccinated.

“He thinks that being surrounded by those who danced the glitter caused the shingles to reactivate,” the group member wrote. The chaff, in this case, refers to “shedding the vaccine,” a false theory among anti-vaccine campaigners that claims that people who have been vaccinated somehow “spill” their vaccine on the unvaccinated and unvaccinated. sick with a litany of diseases.

The use of coded language underscores the challenge Facebook faces in containing the anti-vaccine sentiment that has built up over years on the social network and other digital platforms. Facebook started cracking down on vaccine misinformation in 2019 and pledged in 2020 to take swift action against Covid misinformation

Other extremist groups use coded language to avoid detection. The anti-government boogaloo movement derives much of its iconography from alternative names used to preemptively circumvent Facebook bans. The band members wear Hawaiian shirts and igloo badges because some of the biggest boogaloo Facebook groups changed their names to “Big Luau” and “Big Igloo” before the group’s expulsion from Facebook.

Donovan said extremist groups change their names to mundane or harmless names during increased public scrutiny in an effort to retain the audience they have built up.

“After Charlottesville, white supremacists made efforts to change the names of their groups to things like Muslims for Peace. In doing so, they obviously participate in the evasion of bans, but they learn to work better together, ”she said, referring to the 2017 murderous Unite the Right rally in Virginia. “There is a network effect there where people imagine themselves being persecuted and having access to secret knowledge.”

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