According to the World Health Organisation, in 2018 there was a 30% increase in the number of reported measles cases worldwide. The organisation also recently named “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top global threats of 2019.

This alarming rise has been partially attributed to the anti-vaccination movement, a reluctance or refusal to have children vaccinated due to a belief that vaccines are harmful. Although the anti-vaccination movement is by no means new, with  Dr Andrew Wakefield’s infamous and later debunked study that claimed there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism published in 1998, the misleading and ultimately dangerous message spread now has a new platform on which to spread.

Despite declaring fighting misinformation is one of its top priorities at the end of last year, Facebook has come under fire for content on its site that warns users against vaccinating their children.

Anti-vaxxers on Facebook

With the rise of fake news, anti-vaxxers on Facebook have an increased presence on the platform, with the rise of groups, some with as many as 150,000 members, dedicated to promoting debunked anti-vaccination content. Those seeking information on the topic may be unknowingly directed to such groups due to Facebook’s algorithms. When searching for the word vaccine, users are steered towards pages such as “vaccination re-education discussion forum”.

According to a recent study by the Royal Society for Public Health, nearly half of all parents of young children have been exposed to negative messages about vaccines on social media. Although some of these adverts have been banned in the UK by the Advertising Standards Authority, they are still permitted in many parts of the world.

The issue was highlighted last week when Democrat Representative Adam Schiff sent a letter to Mark Zuckerberg urging the social media company, and others including Facebook-owned Instagram, to do more to prevent the spread of misleading information on their sites.

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Schiff wrote: “The algorithms which power these services are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information, and the consequences of that are particularly troubling for public health issues.”

He also highlighted that Facebook’s policy of accepting paid advertising containing misleading or inaccurate medical information is a serious concern.

Although Facebook has recently updated its policy related to fake news that can lead to “real-world harm”, it does not have a specific policy related to the spread of misleading medical information, meaning anti-vaccination content does not necessarily violate its terms of service.

Misleading ads

As users are allowed to pay to promote their content, anti-vaxxers on Facebook are also able to target ads to certain demographics including pregnant woman and those of the age most likely to have young children. Worryingly, according to Daily Beast, women living Washington State, where there is currently a measles outbreak so severe that the state governor has declared a state emergency, have been targeted by misleading ads.

In response to Schiff’s letter, a Facebook spokesperson told Bloomberg that it was “exploring additional measures to best combat the problem” that could 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.”

For those that get the majority of their information from social media, such information can have a damaging effect, especially considering that research has showed that people frequently find it difficult to differentiate between accurate and misleading information.

According to a study published in Human Vaccines and Immunotherapies in 2017, the presence of anti-vaccination groups of social media have had an influence on the rise of anti-vaccine sentiment in the United States and other countries, and this has gone largely “unchallenged”.

One such solution would be to provide accurate information about the importance of vaccines to counter misinformation.

In a statement to the Washington Post, Facebook said that it was looking into this strategy instead of simply deleting content from anti-vaxxers on Facebook: “While we work hard to remove content that violates our policies, we also give our community tools to control what they see as well as use Facebook to speak up and share perspectives with the community around them.”

Facebook’s third-party fact-checking services can check health-related information, but after the news last week that fact-checking site Snopes is ending its partnership with Facebook, some have raised doubts over the sites commitment to tackling misinformation.

Facebook is not the only culprit

However, anti-vaxxers on Facebook are not the only problem. Last month, YouTube announced that it was changing the way videos are recommended to users to decrease the amount of content that “could misinform users in harmful ways”.  Although YouTube did not specify anti-vaccination content would be included in this, the company said that conspiracy theory videos, such as those “promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness” or “claiming the Earth is flat” would be affected.

However, according to The Guardian, autofill search suggestions on the site still direct views to anti-vaccination videos, and recommends this misleading content even after views have watched videos from scientifically-credible sources.

Twitter has also been implicated. According to a study by George Washington University, Russian bots have played a role in spreading false information about vaccines, designed to promoted discord.

Although it may be impossible to rid platforms entirely of misleading content, social media platforms are rightly under increasing pressure to ensure that the spread of false information is not assisted through favorable algorithms or advertising. Instead, Schiff’s letter urges social media companies to “explore the quality of the information that they receive, particularly on issues that directly impact the health and well-being of… the billions who use your site around the world”.