Facebook Bans Anti-Vaccine Ads but Keeps Pages Where Falsehoods Thrive

Demonstrators protest a mandatory flu vaccine order for children in Boston, Massachusetts on Oct. 5, 2020.  (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

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.

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“It’s basically like if you injected adrenaline into them,” Neil Johnson, professor of physics and researcher at the Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics at George Washington University, told STAT in July.

In a study published in Nature in May, Johnson and his colleagues documented a sizable rise between February and October of 2019 in the number of users following Facebook pages that promoted anti-vaccine content. The research turned up a particularly troubling trend: While pages spreading vaccine falsehoods had fewer followers than pages that shared factual vaccine content, pages spreading falsehoods were more numerous, faster-growing, and increasingly more connected to neutral pages where people did not yet have a clear leaning one way or the other. To Johnson, the findings suggested that anti-vaccination rhetoric would dominate online discussion within the decade.

The CCDH researchers identified a similar problem among Facebook groups, finding 64 that regularly shared vaccine misinformation. The groups garnered a collective following of 1 million people, and that figure is growing.

At a time when much of the world is approaching flu season and the possible rollout of a COVID-19 vaccination, the problem appears increasingly dire.

“COVID-19 misinformation is the equivalent of an ideological dirty bomb: It has the capacity to hurt tens of thousands of people when it detonates in the moment that vaccines are available,” Imran Ahmed, founder and chief executive officer of the CCDH, told STAT in July.

This story was originally published by STAT, an online publication of Boston Globe Media that covers health, medicine, and scientific discovery.