Facebook has announced sweeping plans to crack down on anti-vaxxer misinformation which has proliferated on its site and helped spur a global resurgence in preventable diseases such as measles.
On Thursday, the social media giant announced a series of steps to reduce the reach of anti-vaxxer groups. Chief among them is its plan to make such groups significantly harder to find by reducing their ranking on its search results, removing them from autofill suggestions on the search bar, and not promoting them via recommendation. A similar policy will be put in place on Instagram, which Facebook owns.
Facebook also announced plans to ban anti-vaxxer advertisements on its site, as well as advertising targeting options such as “vaccine controversies.” A Facebook statement said advertisers who violate the policy could have their accounts disabled. This is similar to a policy YouTube adopted when it announced last month that it would no longer run ads on anti-vaxxer channels.
The focus on anti-vaxxer groups has been spurred by a resurgence of diseases previously thought to be under control. The World Health Organization (WHO) this year reported a 30 percent rise in the number of measles cases worldwide.
A major outbreak of measles among unvaccinated children in Clark County, Washington led to 70 confirmed cases since January and forced 800 unvaccinated children to stay home to avoid contracting the ailment. In late January, one person infected with measles sickened 21 others at the Yeshiva Kehilath Yakov in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The school is located in New York’s sizable ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, which has many members who are unvaccinated.
The growth in preventable diseases has prompted WHO to label vaccine hesitancy as one of the top threats to global health.
“Some countries that were close to eliminating [measles] have seen a resurgence,” the organization’s report reads. “A vaccine advisory group to WHO identified complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines, and lack of confidence are key reasons underlying hesitancy.”
Due to the resurgence of measles, the role played by Big Tech companies inadvertently providing a platform for anti-vaxxer content has come under increased scrutiny.
On Tuesday, the Senate Health, Education, Labour and Pensions Committee held a hearing on the increase in preventable diseases. All committee members, with the exception of Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), agreed that more needed to be done to combat anti-vaxxer misinformation.
Facebook, has stopped short of banning anti-vaxxer content outright however, unlike the social media site Pinterest, which announced in late February that it would no longer return any search results for vaccine-related content, for or against. When asked by the Verge why it hadn’t adopted a similar line, Facebook said such a move would endanger free speech on the site.
“Counter-speech in the form of accurate information can help create a safer and more respectful environment,” a spokesperson said. “As with a lot of our integrity efforts, striking the balance between enabling free expression of opinion and ensuring the safety of our community is something we’re fully committed to.”