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March 11, 2019

How Facebook wants to stop the spread of anti-vaccine content—without deleting it

Daily Briefing

    Facebook on Thursday announced it will no longer recommend anti-vaccination content on its Facebook and Instagram platforms.

    Background: Tech giants crack down on vaccine misinformation amid growing measles outbreaks

    The move comes after Amazon, Google, and Pinterest have taken steps to crack down on anti-vaccine content on their sites, as measles outbreaks have continued to spread across the United States.

    CDC data show that, as of March 7, there have been 228 reported 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 12 states so far in 2019:

    • California;
    • Colorado;
    • Connecticut;
    • Georgia;
    • Illinois;
    • Kentucky;
    • New Hampshire;
    • New Jersey;
    • New York;
    • Oregon;
    • Texas; and
    • Washington.

    Of those states, CDC has confirmed measles outbreaks in California, Illinois, 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.

    In light of the outbreaks, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) sent letters to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, 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.

    Further, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions on Tuesday held a hearing on the dangers of anti-vaccination claims. During that hearing, Ethan Lindenberger, an 18-year-old who received his vaccinations without his mother's consent, testified that his mother receives most of her information regarding vaccines from Facebook.

    Facebook to make anti-vaccination content less accessible

    Monika Bickert, Facebook's VP for global policy management, on Tuesday said Facebook will not remove anti-vaccination content from its Facebook or Instagram platforms, but it will limit access to such content by no longer recommending pages or groups that contain unsubstantiated claims about vaccinations. Bickert said Facebook also will block advertisements with anti-vaccination claims and eliminate certain targeting options related to vaccinations, such as "vaccine controversies."

    Facebook said it will use the company's artificial intelligence (AI) system to target posts containing anti-vaccination claims that have been disproven, the New York Times reports. Facebook's AI system will identify and flag anti-vaccination content—including videos and photos—from Facebook groups and pages. After the content is flagged, an individual at Facebook will review the content and determine whether it contains anti-vaccination claims. If the content includes false claims about vaccinations, posts from the group or page will start to appear lower on users' news feeds—but it will remain accessible to members of the Facebook groups or pages. Facebook said it is working on how to warn new or existing members of Facebook groups that have shared anti-vaccination content.

    Further, Facebook said it "believe[s] in providing people with additional context so they can decide whether to read, share, or engage in conversations about information they see on Facebook." The company continued, "We are exploring ways to give people more accurate information from expert organizations about vaccines at the top of results for related searches, on Pages discussing the topic, and on invitations to join groups about the topic. We will have an update on this soon."

    Facebook in a statement said, "While we work hard to remove content that violates our policies, we also give our community tools to control what they see as well as use Facebook to speak up and share perspectives with the community around them."


    Renée DiResta, co-founder of Vaccinate California and director of research at a cybersecurity company, said, "I'm really pleased that [Facebook is] recognizing the downstream impact of this kind of misinformation and taking the right steps to balance expression with the recognition that their curation and their suggestions do have an impact on the communities that people join."

    Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School, said Facebook's move likely will lead anti-vaccination groups to become "craftier." For example, Donovan said anti-vaccination groups can use older, seemly abandoned Facebook accounts to promote ant-vaccination content or use "very specific key words, especially the prescription names of some of these vaccines."

    Schiff in a statement said he is "pleased" that Amazon, Facebook, and Google "are taking this issue seriously and acknowledged their responsibility to provide quality health information to their users." However, Schiff in a tweet wrote, "The ultimate test will be if these measures reduce the spread of anti-vaccine content on their platforms, to the benefit of public health"  Thebault, Washington Post, 3/7; Caron, New York Times, 3/7; Graham, "Talking Tech," USA Today, 3/7).

    Rules of engagement: Social media 101

    Health care organizations can leverage social media with a balanced, pragmatic approach, but for many chief information officers (CIOs) and IT leaders, their initial reaction is to avoid social media altogether.

    This research briefing provides an overview of the social media landscape, explains the role of social media in health care, and addresses additional considerations regarding return on investment, staffing models, and IT implications for the CIO.

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