Facebook to Monitor Anti-Vax Content
By Tracey Dowdy
According to reports published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of children in the US who received no vaccine doses as well as the number of parents who have requested exemptions for their children continues to rise. While coverage for a certain vaccines “remained high and stable overall,” the number of unvaccinated kids under the age of two rose from 0.9% for those born in 2011 to 1.3% for those born in 2015. The report doesn’t address the reasons for the increase but suggests it may be due to caregivers not knowing where to access free vaccines and the shortage of pediatricians and other health care providers in many rural areas.
Another more subtle and pervasive reason may be the volume of misinformation surrounding vaccines and their – debunked – ties to autism. Two platforms at the center of the problem – Facebook and YouTube – have recently announced they will crack down on anti-vax misinformation content on their platforms. On Facebook, anti-vaccination sites promoting fake science and conspiracy theories related to vaccines appear at the top of searches when parents search for information about vaccinations. Also featured prominently is Andrew Wakefield, the discredited doctor behind the bogus science linking the MMR vaccine to autism.
Unlike Google, which filters out anti-vax sites to promote information from the World Health Organization, Facebook searches appear to be based on the most popular and active sites regardless of whether or not the information presented is based on fact or fiction. The changes will also impact Instagram, owned by Facebook.
“The consequences of publishing misleading information is a genuine risk to the public’s health – you only have to look at the widespread panic and confusion that was caused by unfounded claims [by Dr. Wakefield] linking the MMR vaccine to autism in the 1990s,” says Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Royal College of GPs in the UK. Stokes-Lampard says she finds it “deeply concerning” that Facebook allowed posts that promoted “false and frankly dangerous ideas” about not only the MMR vaccine but other vaccination programs as well.
Ethan Lindenberger, who testified before Congress on March 5, 2019, stated that he had not been fully vaccinated because at the time he was due to be inoculated, his mother’s believed that vaccines are dangerous and could result in autism. Lindberger, who has since been vaccinated against his mother’s wishes, stated at the hearing, “For my mother, her love and affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress. And these sources, which spread misinformation, should be the primary concern of the American people…My mother would turn to social media groups and not to factual sources like the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. It is with love and respect that I disagree with my mom.”
Lindberger, along with other speakers including Washington state Secretary of Health John Weisman; Dr. Jonathan McCullers of the University of Tennessee; John Boyle, president of the Immune Deficiency Foundation; and Emory University epidemiologist Dr. Saad Omer, challenged the federal government to fund vaccine safety research and launch campaigns to counter anti-vaccine messages similar to past anti-Tobacco campaigns.
YouTube (owned by Google) is also taking action. In a letter responding to a challenge by US Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Karan Bhatia, Vice President Global Public Policy and Government Affairs said it has been blocking anti-vax videos from appearing in its recommendation engine and search results. “I agree with you that anything discouraging parents from vaccinating their children against vaccine-preventable diseases is concerning,” she wrote.
Both Facebook and YouTube intend to discourage people from accepting conspiracies about vaccinations at face value and going forward will attach anti-vaccine material with educational information from authoritative medical sources.
Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of product policy and counterterrorism said, “We are exploring ways to give people more accurate information from expert organizations about vaccines at the top of results for related searches, on Pages discussing the topic, and on invitations to join groups about the topic. We will have an update on this soon.”
Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.