March 26, 2019

GoFundMe campaigns raised at least $170K for anti-vaccination efforts. Now, the company wants that to stop.

Daily Briefing

    GoFundMe on Friday announced that it will no longer allow individuals to use the site to raise funds to support the anti-vaccine movement, joining the ranks of other companies that have moved to limit anti-vaccine content.

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

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

    In recent weeks, several technology giants—including Amazon, Facebook, 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 21, there have been 314 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 15 states so far in 2019:

    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.

    GoFundMe says it will remove anti-vaccine fundraising campaigns

    GoFundMe spokesperson Bobby Whithorne told the Daily Beast that campaigns raising funding "to promote misinformation about vaccines" violate GoFundMe's terms of service, which, according to GoFundMe's website, prohibit donations for "products that make health claims that have not been approved or verified by the applicable local … or national regulatory body."

    As such, GoFundMe is "conducting a thorough review and will remove any campaigns currently on the platform," Whithorne said, though he added that such campaigns are "extremely rare." According to Whithorne, GoFundMe as of March 22 had removed fewer than 10 campaigns related to anti-vaccine promotion.

    A review of GoFundMe fundraisers by the Daily Beast found campaigns promoted by or benefiting from anti-vaccine groups raised at least $170,000 over the past four years. For instance, the Daily Beast found prominent anti-vaccination activist Larry Cook raised nearly $80,000 through several GoFundMe campaigns, and a campaign backed by Health Freedom Idaho and Sarasota for Vaccine Choice raised more than $25,000 for a vaccine exemption lawyer's legal defense fund. According to the Daily Beast, those campaigns appear to have been removed from the site.

    Anti-vaccine advocates push back

    Melissa Sullivan—executive vice president at Health Choice Connecticut, which the Daily Beast reported raised more than $2,000 on GoFundMe under the group's former name, Vaccine Choice CT—told the Daily Beast she thinks GoFundMe's decision to remove anti-vaccine-related campaigns violates the First Amendment of the Constitution. "Whether you believe it's true or not, everyone is entitled to their opinion," she said, adding, "I would hope [GoFundMe] would reconsider. This movement needs to be able to get funds in order to fight pharma giants like Merck and other vaccine manufacturers."

    Tara Smith, a professor of epidemiology at Kent State University, applauded GoFundMe's move, but said anti-vaccine advocates likely will find other ways to raise money and promote their message. "I appreciate the initiative, but [this movement] fundraised before GoFundMe and I'm sure they will find other ways after their campaigns are removed," she said (Folley, The Hill, 3/22; Arciga, Daily Beast, 3/22; Bever, Washington Post, 3/22; CDC data, 3/25).

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