Facebook rolled out a new policy on Tuesday aimed at cracking down on vaccine falsehoods, a ballooning problem for the social network as a growing number of users with neutral views about vaccines appear to turn into vocal opponents.
The new policy prohibits formal advertisements that discourage people from getting vaccinated, reversing a yearslong trend in which such ads were widely permitted. The site also said it will amplify factual messages from international public health authorities including the World Health Organization, as well as direct users in the U.S. to locations where they can get a flu shot. Those updates follow a number of other features released in recent months in a bid to combat misinformation about the pandemic and vaccines.
But the policies released this week and updates issued over the summer do not address Facebook’s most virulent sources of health-related falsehoods: pages and groups. Vaccine misinformation has taken an increasingly strong foothold in those spaces in recent months, with some individuals using them to peddle and profit from falsehoods while flying under the radar of policies designed to police advertisements.
Researchers have identified pages and groups — not formal advertisements — as misinformation superspreaders. In a July report assessing anti-vaccine rhetoric on Facebook, the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate concluded that people using pages to make money off of vaccine misinformation had collectively attracted 28 million followers by June 2020. The analysis, which looked at 409 English-language social media accounts, found that such “anti-vaccination entrepreneurs” had seen their followers grow by 854,000 between May and June of 2020.
Groups are another large source of fuel for the vaccine misinformation fire. In these spaces, where members come together over a shared love of anything from organic foods to cats, conversations about nearly any subject can rapidly shift into discussions about vaccines, with people opposed to vaccines largely dominating the conversation. With more people physically distancing during the pandemic, more discussions are moving online — giving misinformation a place to thrive.