Oakland, CA — Measles are highly contagious, but so is anti-vaccination messaging online. According to the CDC, as of the beginning of July 2019, 1,109 individual cases of measles have been confirmed in 28 states. “This is the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S. since 1992 and since measles was declared eliminated in 2000,” the CDC wrote in its press release.
Growing concerns over the rise in preventable illnesses and the push against vaccinations prompted California Senator Adam Schiff to write a letter to tech companies asking them to stop the spread of misinformation on their platforms. Schiff writes: “As more Americans rely on your services as their primary source of information, it is vital that you take that responsibility with the seriousness it requires.”
The measles outbreak signifies a turning point in the history of vaccines, as more and more parents choose not to vaccinate their children. So what are the tech giants doing to address the debate over vaccination on their platforms? I took a look.
On Facebook, there are several anti-vaccination groups and outspoken individuals including Dr.Tenpenny, Erin at Health Nut News, and Natural News (which is now banned from Facebook). These sites often link articles about how mandatory vaccinations infringe on individual liberties, videos of parent testimonials, books about why you shouldn’t vaccinate, and alternative medicines to use in place of vaccines. Dr. Tenpenny’s Facebook page features a section selling the novel “Saying No to Vaccines.”
Facebook released a statement on combating vaccine misinformation on their platform: “We are working to tackle vaccine misinformation on Facebook by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic.”
Facebook has taken action by rejecting and removing ads that contain false information about vaccines. Facebook also said that they would no longer promote anti-vaccine groups and pages in search results and will not surface them in users’ news feeds. Additionally, Facebook said it would work with several credible health organizations like the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to take action against “verifiable vaccine hoaxes.”
On Pinterest the amount of misinformation relating to vaccines was so prevalent that the company decided to completely disable all searches relating to vaccinations.
Among the social media platforms I examined, Pinterest is the only company to take such drastic action. The company pointed to their misinformation policy to justify disabling vaccine-related content. The company cited concerns for their users, stating, "[Y]ou’re not allowed to save content that includes advice where there may be immediate and detrimental effects on a Pinner’s health or on public safety."
Instagram is currently developing a pop-up message that will appear in front of content that is displaying vaccine-related misinformation, according to an Instagram spokesperson who spoke to The Hill. The app will also no longer promote posts that spread vaccine misinformation. Instagram has also been blocking hashtags that obviously promote false information like #vaccinescauseautism, #vaccinesarepoison, and #vaccinescauseaids.
I looked up different hashtags, and noticed that anti-vaxxers have sidestepped the blocked hashtags by creating new ones, such as #vaccinesuncovered and #vaccineinjuryawareness. In my own research, while #vaccinesarepoison is blocked, #vaccinesarepoisons (note the additional s) is still an active hashtag.
The anti-vaccine debate on Twitter has extended beyond human reach. Russian bots connected to the Internet Research Agency, a group known to have meddled in the 2016 election, used a Twitter hashtag (#VaccinateUS) to increase political discord around vaccines, according to a study by the American Journal of Public Health.
Researchers found that Twitter's bots weren’t just posting anti-vaccine content. They were also posting pro-vaccine content to amplify both sides of the debate and polarize the issue further. The study found that exposure to anti-vaccine content is associated with vaccine hesitancy, and vaccine-hesitant parents are more likely to look to the internet for advice. The bots create a sense of general discord, leading users to believe that there isn’t a public consensus around vaccines, and ultimately decreasing confidence in vaccines.
In response, Twitter has released a new tool to help people find reliable information around vaccines. Users who search for keywords associated with vaccines will see a prompt directing them to a credible health source. In the U.S., Twitter partnered with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, which points people to vaccines.gov. Additionally, Twitter will no longer auto-suggest search options that will probably lead to non-credible information.
When a user searches for vaccine-related content on YouTube, the first results direct to credible sources, like the CDC. But Youtube’s UpNext algorithm often recommends anti-vaccination videos, which are then set to autoplay.
For example, after I searched the term “immunizations” on YouTube, without logging in, one of the top results came from the Mayo Clinic. But then, one of the next recommended videos was produced by Fox News, titled “Doctor Behind Film That Links Autism to Vaccines Speaks Out.”
In February, YouTube decided to demonetize many popular channels which are known to present and spread anti-vaccination content, meaning that ads were removed and the poster can no longer earn money from the video. YouTube used its “Harmful or dangerous acts” policy as justification.
YouTube wrote in its official blog: “We’ll continue...taking a closer look at how we can reduce the spread of content that comes close to — but doesn’t quite cross the line of — violating our Community Guidelines. To that end, we’ll begin reducing recommendations of borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways.”
In my own research on the platform, I saw that on several channels that have been singled out for spreading anti-vaxx messages, an information panel pops up that links to a Wikipedia page about vaccine hesitancy.
How Are Teens Responding?
Social media is also being harnessed as a tool to combat anti-vaxx misinformation. Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old from Ohio, first gained attention from a Reddit post in which he asked about how to get vaccinated despite his “kind of stupid” parents. In March, Lindenberger was called to testify in front of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about why he chose to get vaccinated against his parents' wishes.
Reddit, in particular, has become a forum for teens, to get advice on how to get vaccines without parental consent. It’s become clear that as more parents seek to move away from established medical advice, more teens are fighting to get vaccines, and they’re turning to the internet to figure out how.
YR Media contacted Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Pinterest for comment. Representatives for these companies redirected us to existing press releases.