Social media still struggling to inoculate against bad vaccine info
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.
In social media’s battle against misinformation, claims about vaccines are a target.