So­cial me­dia still strug­gling to in­oc­u­late against bad vac­cine info

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - INVESTING - By Bar­bara Or­tu­tay

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Like health of­fi­cials fac­ing out­breaks of dis­ease, in­ter­net com­pa­nies are try­ing to con­tain vac­cine-re­lated mis­in­for­ma­tion they have long helped spread. So far, their ef­forts at quar­an­tine are fall­ing short.

Searches of Face­book, Pin­ter­est and In­sta­gram turn up all sorts of bo­gus warnings about vac­cines, in­clud­ing the soundly de­bunked no­tions that they cause autism or that mercury preser­va­tives and other sub­stances in them can poi­son and even kill peo­ple.

Some ex­perts fear that the on­line spread of bad in­for­ma­tion about vac­cines is plant­ing or re­in­forc­ing fears in par­ents, and they sus­pect it is con­tribut­ing to the come­back in re­cent years of cer­tain dan­ger­ous child­hood dis­eases, in­clud­ing measles, whoop­ing cough and mumps.

“The on­line world has been one that has been very much taken over by mis­in­for­ma­tion spread by con­cerned par­ents,” said Richard Carpi­ano, a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic pol­icy and so­ci­ol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, River­side, who stud­ies vac­cine trends. “Med­i­cal doc­tors don’t com­mand the sort of au­thor­ity they did decades ago. There is a lack of con­fi­dence in in­sti­tu­tions peo­ple had faith in.”

The ef­fort to screen out bo­gus vac­cine in­for­ma­tion on­line is one more front in the bat­tle by so­cial me­dia to deal with mis­in­for­ma­tion of all sorts, in­clud­ing po­lit­i­cal pro­pa­ganda. (Re­searchers have even found Rus­sialinked bots try­ing to sow dis­cord by am­pli­fy­ing both sides of the vac­cine de­bate.)

Pin­ter­est, the dig­i­tal scrap­book­ing and search site that has been a lead­ing on­line repos­i­tory of vac­cine mis­in­for­ma­tion, took the dras­tic step in 2017 of block­ing all searches for the term “vac­cines.”

But it’s been a leaky quar­an­tine. Re­cently, a search for “measles vac­cine” still brought up, among other things, a post ti­tled “Why We Said NO to the Measles Vac­cine,” along with a sin­is­ter-look­ing il­lus­tra­tion of a hand hold­ing an enor­mous nee­dle ti­tled “Vac­cine-na­tion: poi­son­ing the pop­u­la­tion one shot at a time.”

Face­book, mean­while, said in March that it would no longer rec­om­mend groups and pages that spread hoaxes about vac­cines, and that it would re­ject ads that do this. This ap­pears to have fil­tered out some of the most bla­tant sources of vac­cine mis­in­for­ma­tion, such as the web­site Nat­u­ral­news.com.

But even af­ter the changes, anti-vax groups were among the first re­sults to come up on a search of “vac­cine safety.” A search of “vac­cine,” mean­while, turns up the ver­i­fied pro­file of Dr. Chris­tiane Northrup, a physi­cian who is out­spo­ken in her mis­giv­ings about — and at times op­po­si­tion to — vac­cines.

On Face­book’s In­sta­gram, hash­tags such as “vac­ci­neskill” and ac­counts against vac­ci­nat­ing chil­dren are eas­ily found with a sim­ple search for “vac­cines.”

The dis­cred­ited ideas cir­cu­lat­ing on­line in­clude the be­lief that the rec­om­mended num­ber of shots for ba­bies is too much for their bod­ies to han­dle, that vac­cines in­fect peo­ple with the same viruses they are try­ing to pre­vent, or that the nat­u­ral im­mu­nity con­ferred by catch­ing a dis­ease is bet­ter than vac­cines.

De­spite high-pro­file out­breaks , over­all vac­ci­na­tion rates re­main high in the U.S., ac­cord­ing to the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion. But the per­cent­age of chil­dren un­der 2 who haven’t re­ceived any vac­cines is grow­ing.

SETH WENIG/AP

In so­cial me­dia’s bat­tle against mis­in­for­ma­tion, claims about vac­cines are a tar­get.

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