Facebook To Combat Anti-Vaccine Conspiracy Theories And Misinformation

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Following backlash over misinformation on its platform, Facebook said Thursday that it will roll out a new plan to help fight the spreading of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories.

“We are working to tackle vaccine misinformation on Facebook by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic,” Monika Bickert, vice president of Facebook global policy management, wrote in a company blog post

Bickert said the platform plans to combat anti-vaxxers by lowering the ranking of groups and pages that spread vaccine misinformation on people’s news feed. Facebook will also reject advertisements that include anti-vaccine information and remove targeting options such as “vaccine controversies.” The company won’t display or recommend vaccine misinformation on search and hashtag pages on Instagram, which it owns. 

“Leading global health organizations, such as the World Health Organization [WHO] and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [CDC], have publicly identified verifiable vaccine hoaxes,” Bickert wrote in the blog. “If these vaccine hoaxes appear on Facebook, we will take action against them.”

A Facebook representative told CNN that the platform won’t disable personal accounts that post vaccine misinformation because general misinformation does not violate the company’s community standards.

Facebook is the latest tech company to take action regarding this issue. In late February, Pinterest said it will block results for searches related to vaccinations. YouTube also said it will demonetize anti-vaccination videos following a February Buzzfeed report.

Earlier this week, 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger testified before the Senate health committee about vaccine misinformation after he made headlines last month for getting vaccinated against his mother’s wishes.

Lindenberger said Tuesday that his anti-vaccine mother gets most of her information from Facebook, while he learned about vaccines from the CDC, WHO and scientific journals.

“I grew up understanding my mother’s beliefs that vaccines are dangerous, and she would speak openly about these views,” he said at the hearing. “Both online and in person she would voice her concerns, and these beliefs were met with strong criticism. Over the course of my life, seeds of doubt were planted and questions arose because of the backlash my mother would receive.”

Facebook is no stranger to criticism. In the last few years, CEO Mark Zuckerberg has come under fire multiple times in wake of controversial news reports, including an explosive New York Times article that found the platform gave the world’s largest tech companies access to users’ personal data without their knowledge or consent.

The social media network has also been scrutinized for its handling of the 2016 election. Zuckerberg testified before Congress last year following the Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which the political consulting firm hired by President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign harvested data from millions of users for political purposes.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) sent a letter last month to Zuckerberg expressing concern that Instagram and Facebook were “surfacing and recommending messages that discourage parents from vaccinating their children.”

The congressman cited a Guardian report that said suggested searches on Facebook and YouTube often lead users to pages that show medically false information. 

“Repetition of information, even if false, can often be mistaken for accuracy, and exposure to anti-vaccine content via social media may negatively shape user attitudes toward vaccination,” Schiff wrote. The letter encouraged the platform to look into steps it can take to prevent further spreading vaccine misinformation.

In Facebook’s blog post, Bickert said the company was looking at how to better educate users who may come across vaccine misinformation.

“We also believe in providing people with additional context so they can decide whether to read, share or engage in conversations about information they see on Facebook,” she wrote. “We are exploring ways to give people more accurate information from expert organizations about vaccines at the the top of results for related searches, on pages discussing the topic and on invitations to join groups about the topic.”

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