Social media companies are looking to crack down on anti-vaccine content on their sites, as measles outbreaks have continued to spread across the United States.
US sees spike in measles cases
CDC data show that, as of Feb. 14, there have been 127 confirmed cases of measles in the United States this year. That total is more than the combined total number of measles cases confirmed in 2016 and 2017, which saw 86 and 120 confirmed cases, respectively.
According to CDC, measles cases have been confirmed in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Oregon, Texas, and Washington so far in 2019. Of those states, CDC has confirmed measles outbreaks in New York, Texas, and Washington. CDC said the outbreaks are linked to individuals who traveled to countries experiencing major measles outbreaks, such as Israel, and as a result brought the virus back to the United States.
According to CIDRAP News, nearly 50% of all confirmed measles cases this year have occurred in Clark County, Washington. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) in January declared a state of emergency because of the outbreak.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight & Investigations is scheduled to hold a hearing on the outbreaks on Wednesday. Leaders on the committee and subcommittee in a statement said, "Measles is a highly contagious, life-threatening virus that was previously eliminated in the United States thanks to the success of the measles vaccine," adding, "Unfortunately, measles cases are on the rise as a consequence of the virus's transmission among unvaccinated groups."
Social media sites move to limit anti-vaccine content
Amid the outbreaks, some social media companies are looking to limit anti-vaccine content on their sites.
For instance, Pinterest on Wednesday announced that it has temporarily blocked all vaccine-related content from its website. According to CNBC, Pinterest decided to implement the change "after noticing that the majority of shared images on Pinterest cautioned people against vaccinations, despite medical guidelines demonstrating that most vaccines are safe for most people."
Pinterest said it is difficult to remove anti-vaccination content entirely from its site, so it implemented the search ban while it works with physicians, health experts, and a social media analysis company on a more permanent solution. A Pinterest spokesperson said, "We want Pinterest to be an inspiring place for people, and there's nothing inspiring about misinformation," adding, "That's why we continue to work on new ways of keeping misleading content off our platform and out of our recommendations engine."
According to Axios' "Vitals," Pinterest's move could put pressure on other social media sites to remove anti-vaccine content, particularly Facebook, which already is facing pressure from lawmakers to limit misleading health information on its site.
YouTube last month said it has updated its system to reduce recommendations for content "with misleading titles and descriptions," as well as "certain types of anti-vaccination videos."
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) last week sent a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai requesting information on the steps the companies are taking "to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to [their] users, and to encourage [them] to consider additional steps [they] can take to address" misinformation.
Facebook in a statement said it is "exploring additional measures to best combat the problem," which could include "reducing or removing this type of content from recommendations, including Groups You Should Join, and demoting it in search results, while also ensuring that higher quality and more authoritative information is available."
Google did not immediately respond to Schiff's letter. However, according to Bloomberg, Google already has taken steps similar to those detailed by Facebook (Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 2/21; Baker, "Vitals," Axios, 2/22; Bean, Becker's Clinical Leadership & Infection Control, 2/20; CDC website, 2/18; Soucheray, CIDRAP News, 2/19; Luthi, Modern Healthcare, 2/20; Farr, CNBC, 2/20; Frier, Bloomberg, 2/14; Telford, Washington Post, 2/15; Schiff letter, 2/14).
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