Under Pressure Facebook Considering Removal of Anti-Vaccine Content

Under Pressure Facebook Considering Removal of Anti-Vaccine Content February 15, 2019

Pressure continues to build for Facebook to remove anti-vaccine content from its platform. Congressman Adam Schiff wrote a stern letter to the Mark Zuckerberg pleading with him to stop the spread of misinformation about vaccine safety on Facebook. In response, Facebook says the company is exploring options to reduce the information and demote the content from searches.

An article published by the Guardian earlier this week exposed the seedy underbelly of the anti-vaccine movement on Facebook. Their investigation undercovered dozens of anti-vaccine groups promoting alternative health options and spreading false and misleading information about vaccine safety. Most alarming was the discovery that Facebook accepted ad revenue from multiple anti-vaccine groups and pages to promote their content.

In response to the article, Congressman Adam Schiff penned a letter expressing his concerns about the misinformation and fake news allowed on Facebook.

Schiff wrote,

“I am writing out of my concern that Facebook and Instagram are surfacing and recommending messages that discourage parents from vaccinating their children, a direct threat to public health, and reversing progress made in tacking vaccine preventable diseases.”

The congressman pointed out that the anti-vaccine movement has gained so much traction that the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top threats to global health in 2019.

As evidence of the threat posed by anti-vaccine groups, Shiff highlighted the current measles outbreak in Washington state. The emergence of the measles in Washington led the state to declare a public health emergency in January.

Next, Shiff wrote that evidence suggests that one of the sources that cause the anti-vaccine message to spread is through websites like Facebook and Instagram. His concern related to parents seeing viral messages that cast doubt on vaccines in their Newsfeed.

“If a concerned parent consistently sssees information in their Newsfeed that casts doubt on the safety and efficacy of vaccinnes, it could cause them to disregard the advice of their children’s physicians and public health experts and decline to follow the reccomended vaccination schedule.

Repetition of information, even if false, can often be mistaken for accuracy, and exposure to anti-vaccine content via social media may negatively shape usser attitudes toward vaccination.”

Schiff then moved on to the issue that searches conducted by parents related to vaccines on Facebook often lead them to pages and groups that spread medically and scientifically inaccurate information.

Finally, Schiff asked the company to answer several questions related to paid advertising, reviewing if anti-vaccine content violates their community guidelines, and what the company can do to stop anti-vaccine groups, videos, and pages from being recommended to users.

In response to Schiff’s letter, Facebook stated to Bloomberg about their plans to remove the harmful content.

“Facebook said it is “exploring additional measures to best combat the problem,” according to a statement from the company. That 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.”

Other social media platforms have taken similar steps to reduce the amount of anti-vaccine and pseudoscience content on their platforms. YouTube made a change in the way the site recommends videos. Additionally, the company said they would start cutting “borderline content” that misform users in harmful ways.
Schiff sent a similar letter to Google requesting they make changes to how the search engine filters out anti-vaccine websites. Thus far, Google has made no public statement.
With multiple states dealing with measles outbreaks, social media companies need to do more to protect users from fake news and misinformation.
Facebook needs to step up and take action to protect their users from being influenced by fake health news. Science and the medical community have shown over and over that vaccines are safe and effective.
With Congress applying pressure to Facebook, the company will need to start considering significant changes to its platform. The company’s statement to Bloomberg showed that they might not take these requests that seriously.
“We recognize that contentious perspectives exist. We believe removing provocative thinking does little to build awareness around facts and different approaches to health,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an email. “Counter-speech in the form of accurate information and alternative viewpoints can help create a safer and more respectful environment.”
If Facebook continues to have this blase attitude about the content on their page, regulators and lawmakers may have to force the site’s hand and impose restrictions. So far Facebook has scoffed at the idea that they need to be regulated.
Facebook has a massive problem with fake news. While discourse and debate on topics are fine, companies paying to advertise the spread of the information is wrong. Over and over, Facebook shows that their commitment is not to provide the truth but to making money.

*Katie Joy is a columnist and hosts Without A Crystal Ball on Patheos Non-Religious Channel. She writes articles on parenting, disability advocacy, debunking pseudoscience, atheism, and crimes against women and children.

She co-hosts the YouTube show, “The Smoking Nun,” with Kyle Curtis. The show airs weekly and tackles pseudoscience, current events, and crime stories.

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