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Facebook vows to crack down on anti-vaxxer groups spreading misinformation to parents

The private Facebook group Stop Mandatory Vaccination, for example, has close to 160,000 members.

by Emma Ockerman
Mar 7 2019, 8:05pm

Stoked by a horrific measles outbreak in several states and intense pressure from public health officials, Facebook has agreed to crack down on anti-vaxxer content on its platform.

The social media juggernaut announced Thursday that it will reduce the search rankings of groups and pages that promote anti-vaxx content and reject advertisements with anti-vaccine content. Those groups have become a popular haven for misinformation where parents often gather to share advice or promote mutual beliefs. The private Facebook group Stop Mandatory Vaccination, for example, has close to 160,000 members.

The company will also stop showing or recommending content that contains vaccine misinformation as defined by the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on its Instagram explore or hashtag pages.

Facebook has allowed health articles to be fact-checked, according to Vox, which places untrue articles lower in people's feeds — but it doesn’t address private anti-vaxxer groups. Organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics have previously called Facebook out for allowing the groups to proliferate, thereby encouraging parents to forgo evidence-backed vaccinations and put their kids at risk for preventable diseases.

For example, Ethan Lindenberger, an Ohio high school senior who got himself vaccinated at 18, told Congress this week that his mother turned to “anti-vaccine groups online and on social media” to back up her anti-vaxxer sentiments.

But the fallout intensified after more than 70 people, primarily children, became sick with measles in the Pacific Northwest this year. Measles is highly contagious and can be deadly for young children, but a widely available vaccine had previously eradicated its spread in the U.S.

Facebook is also later than other social media platforms to discourage anti-vaccination content. Pinterest, for example, placed a ban on all vaccination searches in September, which became public in February. YouTube also recently announced it will stop monetizing anti-vaccine videos.

Facebook’s move to reject anti-vaxx advertisements may also affect the private groups. The United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority agency once reprimanded the Stop Mandatory Vaccination group when it paid for an advertisement on Facebook that suggested babies would die if vaccinated. The ad explicitly targeted Facebook users with an interest in “parenting.”

“Parents, not only can any vaccine given at any age kill your child, but if this unthinkable tragedy does occur, doctors will dismiss it as ‘sudden infant death syndrome’ (SIDS),” the paid-for advertisement read, according to the Guardian. The newspaper also reported Facebook has accepted advertising revenue from groups like Vax Truther, Anti-Vaxxer, Vaccines Revealed, and Michigan for Vaccine Choice.

Going forward, Facebook will also research ways to better promote factual information about vaccines when users come across common conspiracies. It’s not yet clear, however, who will be involved in these efforts or whether Facebook will invite in outside medical professionals.

Cover image: In this Monday, Aug. 6, 2018, file photo, a health worker prepares a syringe with a vaccine against measles in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (AP Photo/Leo Correa, File)