The Washington Post Sunday

Anti-vaxxers put us all at risk. Facebook and Twitter must act.

- BY LETITIA JAMES AND WILLIAM TONG Letitia James is the attorney general of New York. William Tong is the attorney general of Connecticu­t.

President Biden has announced that every adult in the nation will be eligible for the covid-19 vaccine as of April 19. The availabili­ty of safe and effective vaccines should mark the end of the pandemic, and the start of our recovery.

But vaccine availabili­ty means nothing without vaccine acceptance. Anti-vaccine disinforma­tion that continues to be disseminat­ed unchecked on social media threatens to prolong our recovery and poses a grave threat to the health and safety of millions of Americans.

Facebook and Twitter have instituted a number of policies that have helped to slow the spread of dangerous vaccine disinforma­tion on their platforms, yet these policies have been inadequate­ly and inconsiste­ntly applied. The solution is not complicate­d. It’s time for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to turn off this toxic tap and completely remove the small handful of individual­s spreading this fraudulent misinforma­tion.

Social media researcher­s have found that 12 individual­s and their related organizati­ons are responsibl­e for a full 65 percent of anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve found that these individual­s and groups have repeatedly violated Facebook, Instagram and Twitter’s terms of service, and they must be removed from the platforms.

This small group of “anti-vaxxers” — most with no medical expertise and, in some cases, motivated by personal financial interests — are putting us all at risk. They have used their social media accounts, as well as other public platforms they have access to, to promote wholly unfounded pseudoscie­nce and wild conspiracy theories regarding the safety and effectiven­ess of vaccines. Some of these individual­s have also used their platforms to undermine the reality of the pandemic in its entirety, have promoted fake and unproven cures, and have attacked common-sense, widely accepted public health measures, including mask-wearing and testing.

In some cases, those spreading vaccine disinforma­tion are also spreading other dangerous, debunked political conspiraci­es, such as QAnon.

According to a recent report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, anti-vaccine accounts have reached more than 59 million followers as of last year. Even worse, anti-vaxxers are using social media platforms to target people of color, and Black Americans specifical­ly — communitie­s suffering disproport­ionately from the virus, and whose rates of vaccinatio­n are already lagging.

Given anti-vaxxers’ reliance on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the men and women who run these companies have a unique responsibi­lity and opportunit­y to act. Yet Facebook has failed to consistent­ly apply misinforma­tion labels and pop-ups on antivaccin­e pages. Instead, at the same time, Facebook has mistakenly flagged pro-vaccine pages and content in ways that have undermined public education efforts. The company has allowed anti-vaxxers to exploit loopholes and evade detection through streaming tools, such as Facebook and Instagram Live, as well as through other sites that continue to promote disinforma­tion. That’s why, just last month, our offices, along with 10 additional attorneys general from around the nation, sent letters to the Facebook and Twitter CEOs, urging both to immediatel­y and fully enforce company guidelines against vaccine misinforma­tion. Neither has responded.

Let us be clear — nothing is wrong with asking questions and researchin­g vaccine effectiven­ess and safety. We recognize that some people are skeptical and fearful, particular­ly Black Americans, who know too well the racist history of vaccine experiment­ation in this country and have experience­d, firsthand, the many existing racial disparitie­s in our healthcare system.

We urge those with questions and concerns to seek out legitimate medical experts, including their own doctors, and official sources, such as local department­s of public health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We are not in any way looking to limit the ability of individual­s to ask these important questions, but the small handful of people we’re talking about are simply promoting dangerous lies that do nothing to aid people in their legitimate search for informatio­n. The individual­s spreading this misinforma­tion have long pushed vaccine conspiraci­es.

As the chief law enforcemen­t officers of our states, we can say that there is no First Amendment right to spread disinforma­tion on social media. Twitter and Facebook have an obligation to enforce guidelines for acceptable conduct on their own platforms. In fact, there are additional state-level enforcemen­t mechanisms against false and deceptive marketing, which might apply to those hawking fraudulent “cures” and scam preventive treatments. We are watching this closely, and as attorneys general, from both sides of the aisle, have already taken legal steps to stop those selling products, toothpaste­s, dietary supplement­s, creams and a number of other products with no scientific evidence supporting their ability to fight covid-19.

As attorneys general, the safety and well-being of the families in our states are our top priority. Facebook and Twitter have an obligation and an opportunit­y to take strong, swift action now to save lives and hasten our recovery.

 ?? MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST ?? Dozens of people stand in line to receive the coronaviru­s vaccine in Greenbelt on Wednesday.
MARVIN JOSEPH/THE WASHINGTON POST Dozens of people stand in line to receive the coronaviru­s vaccine in Greenbelt on Wednesday.

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