Earlier in February, Democratic congressman Adam Schiff sent an open letter to Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerburg, the CEOs of Google and Facebook, respectively, expressing his concerns about the coverage anti-vaccine information available through their platforms.

A longtime advocate of the importance of childhood vaccinations, Schiff’s concerns reflect the consensus views of the scientific and medical communities that the spread of inaccurate or outright false information about the safety of vaccines is negatively impacting public health.

The ubiquity of “fake news” was realised following the impact it had on the 2016 US presidential election and UK Brexit vote. Since then, large technology companies have come under scrutiny for not doing enough to restrict the availability of false propaganda such as anti-vaccine content, and GlobalData believes even more pressure must be applied given the existential threat these misinformation campaigns pose to both politics and public health.

Vaccine hesitancy is becoming a pressing threat

According to primary research conducted by GlobalData, vaccine hesitancy is one of the most pressing threats to public health, particularly in developed countries such as the US and Europe, which have recently seen epidemics of easily preventable infections such as measles despite the widespread availability of affordable and effective vaccines.

The World Health Organization (WHO) included vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten threats to global health in 2019. Key opinion leaders (KOLs) interviewed by GlobalData stated that the greatest factor influencing the decision made by parents to refuse vital vaccinations for their children is exposure to misinformation – a situation that has rapidly increased in frequency due to the growing use of the internet and social media.

In his letter, Rep. Schiff notes that Google and Facebook both acknowledge that currently the algorithms powering searches in platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, or Google’s search engine were not created to filter or reduce recommend content, which does often point users to misleading or factually inaccurate content.

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However, he has requested more information on the steps being taken to reduce the availability of medically inaccurate content and has demanded that more be done to quickly confront the growing problem of vaccine hesitancy. He did praise the recent announcement by YouTube that it will no longer recommend videos that violate its guidelines, which include conspiracy theories or medically inaccurate content.

A call for platforms to prevent the distribution of medically inaccurate content

GlobalData believes that social media platforms must continue to adapt their term and conditions to reduce the visibility of misleading content in order to reduce the risk posed to vaccination rates and, subsequently, public health.

The issue of how to enforce regulations on the content of social media and other online platforms is likely to remain contentious, due to the risk of restricting freedom of speech; therefore, a balance must be struck.

Furthermore, any future changes made to how social media platforms police the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation could act as a template for tackling similar issues, such as fake political content. GlobalData believes pressure must be maintained upon these organizations to continue to combat the perpetuation of misinformation to the general public, and with regards to anti-vaccine propaganda specifically, as it causes mistrust in medicine and the clinical research that underpins it.