Will the Internet’s War on Anti-Vaxxers Work?
For the past few months, Big Tech has been waging a public, if not highly effective, battle against the scourge of Fake News, with platforms like Facebook and YouTube taking aim at content promoting conspiracy theories, from the silly (Flat Earth) to the more menacing (QAnon).
Now, following a handful of measles outbreaks across the country and pressure from national lawmakers, tech platforms are taking aim at another fringe group: anti-vaxxers, or people who refuse to or delay vaccinating their children. A relatively small yet vocal community, anti-vaxxers promote a wide range of views, from the theory that vaccines contain dangerously high levels of toxins to the belief that vaccines can cause autism. Such theories have been debunked time and again by most researchers, and the overwhelming scientific consensus is that vaccines save lives and potential side effects are both rare and minimal. But that hasn’t stopped some skeptical parents from delaying vaccinating their children or opting out of doing so altogether, and from taking to social media to propagate conspiracy theories about Big Pharma and the government.
Unsurprisingly, anti-vaxxers aren’t happy with the changes on social media, crying censorship and accusing private companies of allowing themselves to be swayed by governmental interests. But it’s also unclear whether tech platforms’ efforts to silence anti-vaxxers will actually work — or if they’ll inadvertently turn the volume up louder.
Earlier this month, Facebook announced that it would be removing anti-vaxx groups from ads and recommendations, as well as making it more difficult for users to find anti-vaxx pages and posts using the search tool. Instagram would also stop recommending scientifically inaccurate information about vaccines on its Explore and hashtag pages. (Facebook owns Instagram.) This policy change was preceded by a BuzzFeed report that YouTube had pledged to demonetize all anti-vaxx content (when reached for comment, a YouTube spokesperson told Rolling Stone that this policy has actually been in effect for a while, and that anti-vaccine content has always fallen under its harmful or dangerous content advertising policy).
Following an open letter to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos from Rep. Adam Schiff, who has been vocal in the fight against promoting misinformation about vaccines, Amazon has taken steps to remove books promoting the view that vaccines cause autism, as well as anti-vaccine documentaries like Vaxxed; GoFundMe has similarly banned fundraising campaigns from anti-vaxxers, though it made a point of saying in a press release that such campaigns are “extremely rare” and the platform only had occasion to remove about 10 pages thus far.
The policy changes were prompted by pressure from legislators like Schiff and government organizations such as the American Medical Association, which last week authored a letter to social media platforms encouraging them to crack down on anti-vaxxers’ messaging. “With public health on the line and with social media serving as a leading source of information for the American people, we urge you to do your part to ensure that users have access to scientifically valid information on vaccinations, so they can make informed decisions about their families’ health,” the AMA president and CEO said in the letter.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, members of the anti-vaxx (or, as they largely prefer to be called, “vaccine-hesitant or vaccine-risk-aware”) community are not happy about the changes. “I am gravely concerned about how Facebook will roll over for the CDC,” says James Lyons Weiler, head of the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge, which its website describes as a “not-for-profit organization which exists to perform scientific research in the public interest.” Weiler has authored a petition that has received more than 3,000 signatures urging Mark Zuckerberg to revoke its policy. “Where do you draw the line when it comes to responding to government requests — or you might say, government coercion — for censorship?”
To be clear, platforms like Facebook are not outright banning content that is critical of mandatory vaccination. What they are doing is more akin to what Naomi Smith, a sociologist at the Federation University of Australia who co-authored a 2017 paper on anti-vaccination communities on social media, refers to as “digital deplatforming — making it harder to find, making it lower in the search results, not taking money from these groups to promote their posts, making sure the top results on these search queries are quality and not anti-vaxx pages.” Platforms like Facebook aren’t removing the content, so much as it’s “making it quieter and turning down the platform. People are still saying what they want, but that makes it harder [for people] to get pulled down the anti-vaxx rabbit hole,” Smith explains.
Public health organizations and experts have argued that the proliferation of anti-vaxx messaging on social media has a real-world effect on public health, pointing to recent measles outbreaks in the Pacific northwest and New York’s Rockland County, which recently declared a state of emergency after more than 100 people were diagnosed with measles. And while research shows that only a small handful of pages are responsible for generating most of the widely-shared anti-vaccine content on social media, there is evidence to support the idea that anti-vaccine messaging on social media can influence parents’ choices. According to one 2013 study, 70 percent of parents who did not follow a vaccine schedule had someone in their social network who had publicly posted about not vaccinating their child. “We are clearly influenced by the people we invite into our social networks in real life and online. And we can’t ignore that,” says Wendy Swanson, MD, a Seattle-based pediatrician who has been active in the fight to slow down the spread of false information about vaccines on social media.
In the weeks following Facebook and Amazon’s announcements, people active in the campaign against mandatory vaccination have been submitting petitions, organizing rallies and speaking out against the decision; Lyons Weiler has also hinted at pursuing legal action against Facebook, though he demurred when asked to specify details. They see the crackdown as impinging on their right to free speech. “I have a big problem with Facebook taking us down,” says Catharine Layton, COO at the Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN), who became an activist against mandatory vaccination in 2016. (Like the rest of the community, she eschews the term “anti-vaxxer,” viewing the term as a “slur”: “I do think anti-vaxxer is used in the same way as words that were used for people who have different sexual preferences or different races,” she says.)
Layton says her two sons received autism diagnoses after receiving the MMR and pneumonia booster vaccines, respectively; she stumbled on the anti-vaxx community on social media while doing research, and she says that one of her sons has since recovered. (Scientific consensus says there is no link between vaccines and autism; there is also no cure for autism.) Layton believes that social media platforms are de-prioritizing content that is critical of vaccines because of pressure from lawmakers and pharmaceutical lobbyists. “It feels like we’re turning into an oligarchy, meaning we have industry controlling our government, clamping down on free speech,” she says.
There’s also the crucial question of whether this so-called “de-platforming” effort will actually work to begin with. Smith is skeptical, in part because anti-vaxxers have become adept at using language that carries a whiff of scientific legitimacy (take, for instance, phrases like “vaccine choice” or “informed consent for vaccines”) to “sound more publicly palatable… it’s a way of working within the political system to get an aura of legitimacy.” And it does indeed seem like members of the community are learning how to skirt the policy changes by using such language: Facebook searches for “vaccine choice” and “vaccine freedom” yielded a number of different anti-vaccine groups and posts. (A Facebook spokesperson told Rolling Stone it had implemented its new policy, though it would take a few weeks for all of the changes to take effect.) Though he says a number of people contacted him in the early days of the policy rollout saying their posts criticizing the CDC were being removed, Lyons Weiler said he is not having any problems posting on the platform.
For its part, YouTube says it has tweaked its algorithm to stop recommending anti-vaccine videos in its “up next” widget, in response to complaints that such content was being recommended to those watching legitimate health videos. “Misinformation is a difficult challenge and any misinformation on medical topics is especially concerning,” a YouTube spokesperson said in a statement. “We’ve taken a number of steps to address this including surfacing more authoritative content across our site for people searching for vaccination-related topics, beginning to reduce recommendations of certain anti-vaccination videos and showing information panels with more sources where they can fact check information for themselves. Like many algorithmic changes, these efforts will be gradual and will get more and more accurate over time.” It will also include links to sources like Encyclopedia Britannica and Wikipedia on videos about vaccinations to provide more context about information presented in the videos (though it is not clear why Wikipedia, a famously unreliable platform when it comes to accuracy, would be considered a trusted source in this regard).
Similarly, searches for “vaccine autism” yielded results on Amazon, including a book “exposing autism research fraud at the CDC”; searches for “vaccine choice” also yielded numerous T-shirts with popular anti-vax slogans like “Vaccines: My body my choice” and “educate before you vaccinate,” as well as a streaming movie on Prime about how trace amounts of mercury in vaccines are linked to the rise in autism rates. Amazon did not respond to requests for comment at press time. GoFundMe also currently has a number of anti-vaxx-related campaigns on its platform, including fundraising campaigns for vaccine-injured children and campaigns for books, including one about the dangers of the HPV vaccine. In a statement to Rolling Stone, a spokesperson for GoFundMe said it was conducting a “thorough review,” and that “campaigns raising money to promote misinformation about vaccines violate GoFundMe’s terms of service and we are removing them from the platform.”
If the changes do start kicking into gear, and Big Tech makes good on its promise to aggressively crack down on anti-vaccine content, members of the community have plenty of options other than social media: as Baylor College of Medicine infectious diseases researcher Peter Hotez recently told Vox, there are nearly 500 anti-vaccine websites in “the anti-vaccine media empire,” not to mention dozens of books and movies. “We need a comprehensive public-private partnership between the US government and all the major stakeholders — Facebook, Amazon, Google — to look at dismantling the anti-vaccine empire,” Hotez told Vox.
If this ever happens, Smith suggests some members of the community may circumvent these roadblocks by migrating to newer forums like Discord, which is a hotbed of alt-right and white supremacist sentiment. Indeed, Lyons Weiler has said he’s received multiple requests to join MeWe, a chat and messaging app that markets itself as a platform for free speech. At the end of the day, trying to make someone’s voice quieter isn’t the same thing as silencing it altogether, and anti-vaxxers are prepared for this fight. “Here’s the thing. This community has been going through this for a long time,” says Layton. “If Facebook shuts us down, we’ll find somewhere else to talk…this is a very resourceful, smart, determined group of people. If they censor us there, we will find another way to speak out.” That’s in part why Smith thinks most will stay right where they are. “They view themselves as being on a public health crusade,” she says. “They think they have an important message to share with the world.”
There’s an argument to be made that tech companies actively suppressing the voices of anti-vaxxers could further fuel their feelings of persecution and being silenced, thus driving them to become even louder. “There’s a lot of fear and paranoia and fear of persecution in the data that we looked at,” Smith says. This sense of persecution is arguably fueled by how the majority of those in the government and medical community dismiss the legitimate fears, however misplaced, that drive many anti-vaccine activists to the movement to begin with: deeply held concerns about their children’s welfare. “The vaccine risk-aware community has been treated with ridicule, with derision. [They’ve been called]…a bunch of crazy moms who don’t know anything, but that’s not who these people are,” Lyons Weiler said.
Smith says that it would be a mistake to discount the underlying concerns of those active in the movement, the majority of whom are women with children (some of whom have legitimate medical diagnoses, even if there is no proof that they are caused by vaccines). “Anti-vax sentiment comes from a very real place of pain and fear, and often it’s associated with childhood illness and disability that doesn’t seem to have a satisfying medical explanation, and it taps this really primal fear that parents have about wanting to keep their children safe and healthy and well and wanting to find answers for their children,” she says. “[And] a lot of the response has been to mock them for their scientific illiteracy. And that’s not helpful. These people are scared for their children, they’re trying to do what’s right, and telling them they’re stupid and dumb will only further alienate them.”
Dr. Swanson is sympathetic to these concerns, to a point. “Look, we all feel at times failed by modern medicine,” she said. “But if you asked most practicing physicians who are alive on the planet today, what is the biggest advancement in medicine this century, most will tell you vaccination. We know it saves millions and millions of lives around the world.”
She believes attempting to mute opposition from what is ultimately a very small, if not very vocal, fringe group will have the effect of elevating the facts and the established science surrounding the efficacy of vaccines, over unproven or debunked conspiracy theories. “I think some parents walk around thinking there is a large contentious debate,” she said. “There is no debate. The debate was sealed long ago: vaccines protect your children.”