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How Facebook Helped the Anti-Vaxxer Movement Go Viral

New reports have implicated Facebook and other social media platforms for their role in the spread of anti-vaccine propaganda.
In this photo illustration, a bottle containing a measles vaccine is seen at the Miami Children's Hospital on January 28, 2015 in Miami, Florida. A recent outbreak of measles has some doctors encouraging vaccination as the best way to prevent measles and its spread.

The anti-vaccine movement has contributed to measles outbreaks in the U.S., the Philippines, and across Europe.

As Washington, New York, and Texas continue to battle measles outbreaks, new reports have implicated Facebook and other social media platforms for their role in the spread of propaganda that fueled the anti-vaccine movement.

A series of investigations from the Guardian this month uncovered the ways in which Facebook and YouTube promoted fake and misleading content, in spite of the dangers posed to public health: Their algorithms pointed viewers toward misinformation over science-based information, closed Facebook groups like "Stop Mandatory Vaccination" spread inaccurate advice among their hundreds of thousands of members, and, as revealed last week, Facebook allowed advertisers to promote this content—yet another instance in which the platform has been found to be peddling harmful propaganda.

Now, medical professionals and some lawmakers are calling for a crackdown. In a letter to executives at Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube), Representative Adam Schiff (D-California) last week condemned the tech giants for helping to spread anti-vaccine propaganda, most recently linked to a measles outbreak in Washington that's infected more than 60 people.

"There is strong evidence to suggest that at least part of the source of this trend is the degree to which medically inaccurate information about vaccines surface[s] on the websites where many Americans get their information," he 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."

Facing pressure from Schiff and others, Facebook responded Friday, telling Bloomberg News that it is "exploring" removing anti-vaccine information from its platform. This could mean "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," the company said in a statement.

Facebook has come under fire in the past for promoting bigotry and misinformation, as Pacific Standard has covered. Its promised reforms have not stopped the spread of hate speech, Russian propaganda, and fake news on the site—which, as research shows, have undermined democracy. Vaccine controversy, too, has harmful consequences, as seen in the resurgence of measles, a potentially fatal disease once eliminated in the United States by vaccines.

Pacific Standard reported last week that the anti-vaccine movement has contributed to measles outbreaks in the U.S., the Philippines, and across Europe, and a 30 percent increase in measles cases globally—one of the reasons why the World Health Organization named "vaccine hesitancy" as one of the top 10 health threats of 2019. Although anti-vaxxers make up a small proportion of the population, their geographic distribution and vocal opposition has been enough to threaten herd immunity in at least three states, according to Gregory Zimet, professor of pediatrics and co-director of the Center for HPV Research at Indiana University–Purdue University, Indianapolis:

This sentiment has been helped along by celebrity endorsements, misinformation on Facebook and YouTube, and a growing distrust of physicians. "To use an infectious disease metaphor, [anti-vaxxers are] so strident and use social media effectively, that there's a possibility of them 'infecting' parents who have questions but aren't really hard-core anti-vaccine," Zimet says.

Cracking down on Facebook and YouTube content that promotes myths about vaccination is one way to end this cycle; research suggests that explaining the importance of vaccines to hesitant parents could be another.