Health

Mark Zuckerberg's Congressional Testimony Got Sidetracked by a Weird Exchange About Vaccines

Congressman Bill Posey interrupted a House Financial Services Committee hearing to press the Facebook CEO on how he would make the platform safe for anti-vaccine content.
October 23, 2019, 6:54pm
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Facebook CEO and man perpetually failing to adequately explain himself Mark Zuckerberg appeared before the House Financial Services Committee today to testify about Libra, Facebook’s new and already floundering cryptocurrency. Congressional hearings, however, have a tendency to slide sideways, almost immediately, into a morass of individual lawmakers’ peculiar fixations, passion projects, and preferred modes of single-issue showboating. It is thus not surprising that the hearing was briefly and bizarrely dragged off track by Congressman Bill Posey, who urgently needed to know if Zuckerberg would keep Facebook safe for anti-vaccine crankery.

Posey is a longtime vaccine “skeptic,” though he will tell you, loudly and at length, that he’s not. In a 2015 interview with the Orlando Sentinel, for instance, he said, "I am absolutely, resolutely pro-vaccine," before recounting how he had heard from mothers whose children stopped speaking after being vaccinated and decided, “It can't be coincidental.” He has suggested that the Centers for Disease Control committed “research fraud” related to the MMR vaccine, a debunked trope that is nonetheless promoted to this day by the anti-vaccine movement. (Broadly, the CDC MMR fraud “scandal” falsely suggests that the agency covered up a link between vaccines and autism, particularly in African-American boys.)

Facebook announced in March that it would try to prevent its platforms from being used to promote dangerous anti-vaccine misinformation through measures like making posts less prominent in search results. (In September, the company said it had partnered with the World Health Organization and would direct people searching vaccine-related hashtags, for example, to reputable public health bodies like the WHO and CDC.)

In response to the March announcement, Posey wrote a letter to Zuckerberg that was reposted across the universe of vaccine critics, including by Children’s Health Defense, an organization founded by fellow famous vaccine skeptic Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

In the letter, Posey implied that the very existence of the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program proves that there’s a severe issue with unsafe vaccines. (In fact, the program’s own data show how rare it is for someone to report and be compensated for a vaccine injury. Billions of doses of vaccines have been administered in the 30-ish years the program has existed; it has compensated just 6,600 people in that time. Further, as the New York Times pointed out, “about 70 percent of the awards have been settlements in cases in which program officials did not find sufficient evidence that vaccines were at fault.”)

Posey also asked in the letter if Facebook accepts paid advertising from pharmaceutical companies. He also asked how Facebook planned to address “the bullying of individuals who discuss vaccine injury by individuals paid to promote vaccine policies, sometimes referred to as ‘trolls.’” (That statement implies that some shadowy, Big Pharma-backed force is paying people to promote pro-vaccine talking points, a statement for which Posey provided no evidence.)

Posey also asked if the company would be applying a “deboosting code” to vaccine-skeptical Facebook pages, which appears to be something he picked up from a report by Project Veritas, the right-wing group headed by James O’Keefe, known for its misleadingly edited content and all the times O’Keefe has personally humiliated himself trying to expose supposedly shocking examples of liberal bias in high places.

All of this should lend some useful context to Posey’s use of Zuckerberg’s congressional testimony as an opportunity to engage in pseudoscientific grandstanding and claim that “medical research” had established “specific risks associated with vaccinations.” The key question he asked was, “Is Facebook able to assure us that it will support users’ fair and open discussions and communications related to the risks as well as the benefits of vaccinations?”

Zuckerberg’s response was fairly flabby. He told Posey, “We do care deeply about giving people a voice and freedom of expression. Those are some of the founding values of the company. At the same time we also hear consistently from our community that people want us to stop the spread of misinformation. So what we do is we try to focus on misinformation that has the potential to lead to physical harm or imminent harm. And that can include misleading health advice. There was a hoax that was going viral a couple months back that was—“

“Let’s kind of stick to this subject because our time is very limited,” Posey interrupted. “Are you 100 percent confident that vaccines pose no injury to anyone on this planet?”

“Congressman, I don’t think it would be possible for anyone to be 100 percent confident,” Zuckerberg replied. “But my understanding of the scientific consensus is that it is important that people get their vaccines.”

That’s broadly correct. But more to the point: Don’t get your vaccine safety information—or medical advice of any kind—from either Bill Posey or Facebook.

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