Listen, I hate needles as much as the next person, but antivaxxers are taking their hatred of basic scientific advancement a step further by coding their communication in Facebook groups with carrot emojis to avoid the social media platform’s content filters.
What a hectic past two and a half years it’s been, huh? A deadly respiratory virus is unleashed on the world, and we were forced to stay home and avoid contact with friends and loved ones. It was a dark time for most, but the glimmer of hope on the horizon was the development of safe and effective vaccines to protect people from severe hospitalization. For some, however, the vaccine was too good to be true, and it felt like the antivax misinformation campaign has exploded since the Spring of 2021. Today, corners of the Internet are strongholds for conspiracy theories and while social media sites are claiming to take action, and antivaxxers are getting more savvy at disguising their conversation against Facebook’s content filter. Their weapon of choice? The carrot emoji.
Marc Owen Jones, a disinformation researcher and associate professor of Middle East Studies at Hamad bin Khalifa University, shared screenshots of the carrot emoji discourse in the wild, as he says he was invited to join an antivax Facebook group. Based on Jones’ screenshots, the ramblings of these antivaxxers are delightfully incoherent. “My sister, 57, rushed to the hospital with breathing problems. She has two 🥕🥕 and the b🥕,” one poster writes.
It’s not immediately clear if all of these posts are referencing the two-dose covid-19 vaccines and additional boosters currently available, but it is clear that this is a coordinated attempt by group members and administrators to avoid Facebook’s AI content filter. A screenshot Jones shared in a subsequent tweet of an alleged communication from a moderator of the group to its members reiterates the important of “coding” messages in the group. The poster also says that group moderators will delete posts that they believe will ping Facebook’s content monitoring AI. “[C]oding is important and carrots are to date not picked up by AI censors,” the message reads.
“I think the premise of using a carrot is quite amusing. It resembles a syringe, and somehow the group managed to evade censors up until now. Whether that was the carrot’s doing or not is another question,” said Jones in an email to Gizmodo. “Occasionally I saw other emojis being used, including cupcakes and shot glasses for the vaccine shot. The group just did not want people to use the words ‘covid-19′ or ‘vaccination’ but it seemed carrots were the standard emoji.”
Facebook did not immediately return Gizmodo’s request for comment.
Facebook does remove covid-19 misinformation from their platform, stating in their Help Center that it will remove “Claims that COVID-19 vaccines are experimental, if the context of the claim also suggests that vaccinated people are taking part in a medical experiment,” and “Claims that COVID-19 vaccines kill or seriously harm people.” The platform also claimed in a press release from August 2021 to have removed 20 million pieces of covid-19 misinformation from Facebook and Instagram globally. However, they’re reportedly losing interest in the good fight, as Meta expressed interest via blog post in July 2022 in reassessing how important the removal of covid-19 misinformation really is.
What’s interesting, and equally scary, about the carrot coded messaging of medical misinformation in this instance is the power of group think. Though the bright side is that antivax appears to be a decreasing, albeit still very vocal, minority, vaccine hesitancy is reportedly on the decline.
Update September 16, 2:37 pm EST: This article was updated to include comment from Marc Owens Jones.