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Aug. 24, 2021, 1:31 p.m.

Facebook sent a ton of traffic to a Chicago Tribune story. So why is everyone mad at them?

Because that story was a hit among anti-vaxxers — showing you don’t have to be a “fake news” outfit to put public health at risk.

On Friday, The New York Times had a scoop. Facebook — that known vector for the spread of kid photos, neighborhood goings-on, and theories on how much toddler blood Hillary Clinton drinks per week — had pledged itself toward greater transparency in what, exactly, people are consuming on its platform. Toward that end, last week it released a new report with a bunch of charts and tables on “Widely Viewed Content” on Facebook for Q2 of 2021, April through June.

But what about Q1? Well, it turns out there had been a Q1 report, but it had been shelved by executives after they “debated whether it would cause a public relations problem.”

So what was so damning about that Q1 report?

In that report, a copy of which was provided to The Times, the most-viewed link was a news article with a headline suggesting that the coronavirus vaccine was at fault for the death of a Florida doctor.

Ah! And which scurrilous vendor of fake-news wares produced this article — the one so terrible that Facebook executives couldn’t stand for the world to know that it was popular on their platform?

The headline of the article, from The South Florida Sun Sentinel and republished by The Chicago Tribune: “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine; CDC is investigating why.”

This link was viewed by nearly 54 million Facebook accounts in the United States. Many commenters on the post raised questions about the vaccines’ safety. Six of the top 20 sharers came from public Facebook pages that regularly post anti-vaccination content on Facebook, according to data from CrowdTangle, a social media analytics firm owned by Facebook. Other top sharers of the story included Filipino Facebook pages supporting President Rodrigo Duterte, a pro-Israel Facebook group and a page called “Just the Facts,” which described itself as “putting out the Truth even when the media won’t.”

Months later, the medical examiner’s report said there wasn’t enough evidence to say whether the vaccine contributed to the doctor’s death. Far fewer people on Facebook saw that update.

Wait…what? It was an article in the Chicago Tribune whose popularity was so embarrassing for Facebook?

Why in the world is that more embarrassing for Facebook than it is for the Chicago Tribune?

True, that 54 million Facebook users saw the story is only the latest proof of something we’ve known about the platform for a long time: If you drop poison into Facebook’s content well, it can be extraordinarily effective at spreading it out. That’s a terrible and important reality.

But it’s also true that it only matters if the poison gets dropped in the first place.

There’s no way for mainstream news organizations to keep all the poison out of social media, of course. But is it too much to ask for news outlets to refrain from dropping it in ourselves? Or at least to be a little reflective when it turns out we were the ones doing the poisoning?

Here’s the background. A Florida doctor named Gregory Michael got his first shot of the Pfizer vaccine on December 18. He had no immediate reaction to it, but a few days later, he noticed some spots on his hands and feet and went to get them checked out. The platelet count in his blood was low, and he was admitted to the ICU. Multiple doctors tried a variety of ways to try to boost his platelet count, but nothing worked. Eventually, he suffered a stroke and died on the evening of January 3.

This was obviously a very sad event for Dr. Michael’s family and friends. His wife wrote (on Facebook, of course) about what had happened. (You can read the content of her post here; his wife says Facebook took down the original at some point.) Reporters found the post and started writing pieces about the case. (I can’t confirm whether the Sun-Sentinel’s piece was the first or not, but I haven’t found any older.) The Sun-Sentinel article was then picked up by other Tribune Publishing newspapers, which is how it ended up on the Chicago Tribune’s site.

The headline: “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine; CDC is investigating why.” The lede:

Two weeks after getting a first dose of a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, a 56-year-old doctor in South Florida died in January, possibly the nation’s first death linked to the vaccine.

“Possibly”! Someone said so on Facebook, so sure, could be.

While the Sun-Sentinel treatment of the story was less than optimal — it’s not hard to see why that headline spread on Facebook above the competition — plenty of other outlets wrote about Dr. Michael too. Including, yes, The New York Times.

Some were more tabloidy about it than others. (“EXCLUSIVE: Wife of ‘perfectly healthy’ Miami doctor, 56, who died of a blood disorder 16 days after getting Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine is certain it was triggered by the jab.” The Daily Mail’s gonna Daily Mail.) Others put it behind an SEO headline or a clickbait tease. (“Who Is Gregory Michael? Doctor Dead After COVID Vaccine, Wife Says It ‘Destroyed A Beautiful Life.’”)

Fast forward three months: The autopsy and investigation found no evidence to connect the vaccine and Dr. Michael’s death, which was attributed to natural causes.

But here’s the thing: It does appear likely that his condition, thrombocytopenia, could be triggered by a Covid vaccine — just as it can be triggered by other vaccines or flu shots. Or snake bites, or blood thinners, or Lyme disease. Or not having enough Vitamin B12 or folic acid. Or common medicines like quinine or interferon — or even Prilosec or Zantac. Individual immune systems can react in idiosyncratic and unpredictable ways to an outside stimulus, and this sort of platelet dysfunction is one of those possible responses. The CDC lists thrombocytopenia as an extremely rare but nonetheless real potential side effect of a Covid vaccine. But they also note that “there has been no increased risk detected for [thrombocytopenia] after mRNA COVID-19 vaccination” — mRNA being the type of vaccine (Pfizer) Dr. Michael took.

(The CDC reports only a small observed increase with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. As of last month, a total of 38 cases of thrombocytopenia had been reported among the 12.6 million people who’d gotten the J&J vaccine. Four of those people died. To put those numbers in context: Your risk of dying in a car accident this year is roughly 165 times higher. Your risk of dying from cancer this year is 2,500 times higher. It’s substantially lower than your risk of dying by electrocution this year.)

In other words: All vaccines can have side effects; in extremely rare circumstances, they can be very serious, even fatal. But the risk is much lower than plenty of other activities that we don’t think twice about — and that’s not to mention all the benefits of, you know, not dying from Covid, which killed 100,000 Americans in the month Dr. Michael died. When you’re giving out hundreds of millions of doses to people in a narrow window of time, these extremely rare reactions likely will happen to someone — but that doesn’t change the basic calculus of vaccination.

Do you think that’s the message those 54 million people on Facebook took away from that Chicago Tribune story?

Should these news outlets have published those stories about Dr. Michael in January? Maybe you’ll disagree, but for me the clear answer is no.

We’re talking about a single case — for which there was zero evidence to suggest a connection beyond a calendar. (“A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after eating an Egg McMuffin.” “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after hugging his son really hard.” “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a new haircut.”) The closest thing to evidence presented is that the CDC is looking into the case. But of course they are — that’s literally their job!

Even if this side effect had turned out to be much more common than it is, to turn one Facebook post about one person into a national story is something I don’t think is editorially justifiable.

Meanwhile, it was 100% predictable that this story would be waved around as “proof” that the vaccine is a secret murder machine. This is, after all, a core tactic of anti-vaccine activists: using a single unproven case to increase doubt in a vaccine that’s been taken by hundreds of millions of people.

Many news orgs have written stories about how the VAERS system — essentially a giant database of unverified anecdotal data anyone can add to — has become a tool of abuse by anti-vaccine types. But that doesn’t stop them from writing stories about single unverified cases — and acting shocked if they do big numbers on Facebook.

CNN even pulled off the two-fer in a single month: writing a national story about Dr. Michael’s death and then running a different story about how “anti-vaccine groups are exploiting the suffering and death of people,” including Dr. Michael, “who happen to fall ill after receiving a Covid shot.”

Quite a few national outlets managed to avoid splashing a big headline about his death; I couldn’t find any stories on the websites of the BBC, ABC News, CBS News, or NBC News. Other outlets who wrote about the case did so in a more restrained manner. The Washington Post only got to it in the 29th paragraph of a giant daily Covid roundup piece. The Wall Street Journal included it in a liveblog.

Other outlets highlighted elements of the story less likely to inflame antivax suspicions. Rather than leading with “A ‘healthy’ doctor died two weeks after getting a COVID-19 vaccine,” they started their headlines with the investigation (“Florida Medical Authorities Probing Death of Man Who Got Covid-19 Vaccine”; “Pfizer Investigates Post-Vaccine Death for Possible Connection.”)

Even if you think it was right to run a story in January, is it still right to have it up, unchanged, in August, when you know it’s being used to advance false arguments that will, in the aggregate, kill people? The Tribune/Sun-Sentinel story has had a little update added to the top, but the headline and story themselves are unchanged. And the vast majority of news outlets I checked haven’t done anything to contextualize the story for anyone who finds it in their News Feed. They’re still being found and tweeted about today, nearly eight months later.

Stories online have an afterlife that stretches long after someone clicked Publish in a CMS — and news organizations should be responsible for it.

The New York Times’ story about Dr. Michael was better than the Sun-Sentinel/Tribune one; it interviewed experts, had a less lurid headline, and did a better job contextualizing the risk. But their contents were, fundamentally, almost identical: A man died, his wife thinks the vaccine is at fault, authorities are investigating, but there’s no evidence yet of a connection.

Imagine for a moment that it has been the Times’ story about Dr. Michael that finished No. 1 on Facebook in Q1, rather than the Sun-Sentinel/Tribune’s. It easily could have been. In that case, would Friday’s story have focused on how embarrassing that shelved report was for Facebook?

And if the Tribune article was such embarrassing poison, why didn’t the Times get on the phone with Chicago to demand some answers? “Hey, Mitch Pugh, did you know your new newspaper has been publishing vaccine misinformation for months? What are you going to do about it?”

Whenever news types complain about the devious Facebook algorithm, they inevitably want it to give more weight to established, quality news organizations — like the Chicago Tribune. Is this what they mean?

I don’t believe there’s a single factual error in the piece. It isn’t “Pope Francis shocks world, endorses Donald Trump for president.” But a real story can serve the same function as misinformation if it presents those facts without the right context — especially if it feeds into an existing wrong-headed narrative. “Scientists: Fiery Ball the Size of a 1.3 Million Earths Coming Tomorrow Morning” might be true — but if you know there’s a sun-averse death cult in your neighborhood, maybe you don’t publish it with that headline?

God, I hate it when something makes me feel any sympathy for Facebook, which has mostly been a curse visited upon civilization. But what is the scenario in which “sending too much traffic to a Chicago Tribune story” would be the next great civic crime it committed?

For the past several years, news organizations worldwide have been on a campaign to prove that Facebook (and Google) should give them some money, stat. Their lines of argument, if summarized a bit glibly, go something like this:

  • We mainstream news publishers used to make a lot of money. Now we don’t, and Facebook does. So pay us!
  • Facebook would be worthless if it didn’t have all the great content we mainstream news publishers produce. No one would even use it. So pay us!
  • Platforms like Facebook are huge vectors for the spread of misinformation. All those Nazis? Their fault. People with nutty ideas about vaccine safety? Their fault. We are the trusted and true sources of reliable information who can counter all this fake-news chaos. So pay us!

Facebook, like Google before it, has responded to these arguments by writing checks left and right, hoping that a few hundred million dollars here or there might shut publishers up. And who are the hungry publishers to whom Facebook has thrown those bones? Obscure outfits like the Chicago Tribune and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel!

Facebook on Friday launched a news service that will include curated stories from the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News and more than 200 other news outlets, some of which will be paid for their content…

An effort to combat so-called fake news and provide support for legitimate journalism, the new service will present local and national daily news stories from a wide range of publishers. Instead of relying exclusively on algorithms, the stories will be selected by a team of journalists hired by Facebook, the company said…

“Tribune Publishing is pleased to participate in Facebook News at its inception,” Mark Campbell, chief marketing officer of Tribune Publishing, said in a statement Friday. “This partnership will help connect readers with the high-quality journalism of the Chicago Tribune and New York Daily News. We look forward to a successful launch and positive results.”

Tribune Publishing and Facebook declined to discuss the financial terms of the content licensing deal.

Also among the takers: The New York Times. So, to recap:

  • Legit publishers complain Facebook is a giant mess of misinformation.
  • Legit publishers say Facebook should be paying them for all the good, clean news they put in there.
  • Facebook says, sure, whatever, we’re richer than God, have a few hundred million.
  • Legit publishers then write the single most popular piece of content on the platform, and it’s one that makes people think they shouldn’t get the vaccine because it just miiiiiight kill them.
  • Legit publishers complain…about Facebook! “Wow, it’s super embarrassing that one of our stories did so well on your garbage platform!”

Publishers, heal thyselves.

Photo by Tom Woodward used under a Creative Commons license.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Aug. 24, 2021, 1:31 p.m.
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