County grapples with misleading Facebook comments

Misleading comments that propel conspiracy theories and false information about pandemic issues are causing concern for those who manage the Alachua County Facebook page.

At the Alachua County Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on Tuesday, county communications director Mark Sexton said Facebook prevents government page accounts from shutting off comments because it is considered a public square. But for a page with nearly 100,000 followers, monitoring thousands of comments a day on various posts is too time consuming for staff.

“Some are policing themselves, being hidden by Facebook, some are suspended or expelled for repeatedly entering links to misinformation,” Sexton said. But he noted those measures are mainly for major problems. 

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“Facebook has algorithms looking for some of the largest offenders,” Sexton told the BOCC. “People they know are regularly putting out misinformation.

BOCC Chair Ken Cornell said he had concerns because the county’s Facebook page is part of a permanent set of records.

“Misinformation becomes part of the record that we are promoting,” he said.

Sexton told the BOCC that the latest version of the page is constantly becoming part of the public record: “Every 12 seconds everything on our social media page gets copied electronically.”

He added that he and the staff are not actively deleting or hiding any comments unless they are “outwardly harassing.”

“I wish that we could police it better,” he said.

Alachua County Attorney Sylvia Torres asked about setting the page up differently to allow for more control over the comments.

“I like that idea,” said BOCC member Marihelen Wheeler, who suggested the page should become more of a bulletin board of information.

Sexton relayed to the BOCC that he was surprised about which posts were going viral and drawing thousand of comments.

On Aug. 29 Sexton posted a text square that read:

“Who’s vaccinated?

1. Donald Trump and every other living US president

2. All 50 governors-both R and D

3. Nearly 100% of US Congress

4. 96% of American physicians

5. 75-80% of the military (soon 100%)

Who’s not vaccinated?

99.2% of all people currently dying of COVID-19.”

Comments on the post ranged from support to comments making false claims such as, “So let’s act like political figures can’t just say they have been vaccinated to make the public think they were?” or “Fact 100% of people who get the vaccine will die.”

According to Sexton, that post took off beyond Alachua County, reaching 6.2 million people by Tuesday. It received more than 5,600 comments and more than 83,000 shares as of Wednesday afternoon.

“Relatives from across the country have asked what’s going on because they viewed the post,” Sexton said.

City of Alachua resident Tamara Robbins said during public comments that misinformation in the comments on the county’s Facebook page is at the “core of a whole lot of problems.”

“Why are taxpayers funding a misinformation page?” she asked. “Why is the public funding that?”

She said the county should be the source of only fact-based information. 

“Shut down the Facebook two-way page and provide facts and stop engaging,” she said. “Nothing good has come out of it.”

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