Facebook to highlight 'groups' function — Here's why health experts are worried

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Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the social network's "groups" function will become "more central" to the user experience on an earnings call in January, raising concerns among some health experts.

"In Facebook, the way people experience groups and communities will continue to deepen," Mr. Zuckerberg said on the Jan. 30 call. "For groups, the main thing that we're focused on is making it so that connecting with communities of people that you're interested in is going to be as central to the experience as connecting with friends and family."

The groups function on Facebook allows users to join and create public or private online forums dedicated to specific shared interests. "You can create a group for anything — your family reunion, your after-work sports team, your book club," Facebook writes in its help center.

But while Facebook sees groups as a way to foster communities online, some researchers have raised concerns that groups contribute to a culture of misinformation.

Jonathan Albright, PhD, director of research at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at New York City-based Columbia University, told NBC News the rise in private groups has pushed Facebook activity out of public view — meaning researchers are left in the dark about whether Facebook's algorithm may be directing people toward fringe communities.

"We need to know more about the networks and members of groups that spread false information and target individuals," he said.

One private Facebook group, "Stop Mandatory Vaccination," has more than 150,000 members. It's run by self-described "social media activist" Larry Cook who, despite having no medical training, promotes the disproven theory that vaccines cause autism, according to NBC News.

A significant way Facebook has grown user participation in groups is by recommending groups to people based on their interests, rather than waiting for users to search and seek them out. The algorithm that the social network uses for this purpose isn't public, and some researchers have found Facebook "actively pushes" users down a rabbit hole of radical communities, according to NBC News.

Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, told The Guardian she had met with Facebook employees to share her concerns over anti-vaccination pages.

"Facebook should prioritize dealing with the threat to human health when falsehoods and misinformation are shared," she said. "This isn't just self-harm, it's community harm."

In response to concerns that the social network promotes anti-vaccination content, Facebook told Bloomberg it is "exploring additional measures to best combat the problem." One solution might include "reducing or removing this type of content from recommendations, including Groups You Should Join, and demoting it in search results, while also ensuring that higher quality and more authoritative information is available."

When NBC News reached out to Facebook to ask about its recommendations engine, a spokesperson pointed to the option it provides users to hide or remove the groups that Facebook suggests.

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