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Anti-Vaccination groups on Facebook
April 04, 2019
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Who Needs Vaccinations When You Have Healing Crystals?

Jasmine Kaur, Student, SFU CMNS 353

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

Ethan Lindenberger, a high school senior, testified on March 5 th, 2019 before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. He became famous for getting vaccinated against his mother’s wishes when he turned eighteen. His mother believed that immunization can lead to autism and brain damage and refused to get him vaccinated. Speaking before the Senate, Lindenberger told senators that he took it upon himself to research the benefits of vaccines, which he called a "medical miracle" that stops "the spread of numerous diseases and therefore saving countless lives." Throughout his childhood, his mother was vocal about her opinions on vaccinations both in person and online. She used online groups and social media to support her opinions regarding vaccinations. It was only when he joined a debating club in high school that he learned the importance of researching credible information in order to find "truth in a world of misleading facts and false views" and consulted information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, and various scientific journals to learn more about the benefits of vaccines.

Finally, Lindenberger confronted his mother with what he had learned: that "there is no link between vaccines and autism." His mother responded, "That's what they want you to think." Facebook, or websites that were linked on Facebook, is really the only source his mother ever relied on for her anti-vaccine information . The false and deep-rooted beliefs his mother held — that vaccines were dangerous — were perpetuated by social media. Specifically, she turned to anti-vaccine groups on social media for evidence that supported her point of view. He concluded his testimony by telling the senators that his mother's opinions were not rooted in malice but rather stemmed from deep concerns for him. According to him, the anti-vax campaign has gained momentum, by taking advantage of the fear parents have over the well-being of their children, "for my mother, her love, affection, and care of a parent was used to push an agenda and create false distress."

This is the beating heart of any real discussion about anti-vaxxers. It's impossible to understand the position of these parents without taking into account the amount of fear that goes into the anti-vaccine narrative. It’s easy to dismiss anti-vaxxers as ignoramuses who need to read a book. However, for the most part, they are just worried parents who deal with fear the way most of us do: by avoiding what we’re afraid of. We can debate whether the response of the parents is right or wrong all day long, but the primary responsibility must be put where it belongs: on the groups that actively spread misinformation in order to profit from parents turning to alternative medicine. These groups use fear tactics and spread misinformation to turn parents away from traditional medicine. A large part of the anti-vaxxer movement is based on stories, because personal anecdotes resonate with people more than data and statistics. Social media platforms such as Facebook and YouTube are convenient hunting grounds for anti-vaccination organizations.

On Facebook, anti-vaxxers operate in closed groups, where members have to be approved in advance. These groups are no longer a fringe minority; they have become large and sophisticated. Stop Mandatory Vaccination, one of the largest anti-vax community, has more than 150,000 approved members. By barring access to others, they are able to serve undiluted misinformation without challenge. It also becomes harder to shut them down since Facebook often relies on community tools that allow users to report posts that violate Facebook’s content policies.

Anonymised posts from an anti-vax Facebook group. Image by Jacob Geers

But this doesn’t mean that anti-vaxxers don’t promote their ideology in the form of sponsored posts. Facebook has taken in thousands of advertising dollars from those who specifically target parents with often frightening false messages meant to undermine trust in vaccines. The group “targeted users with an interest in parenting” with the intent to “cause parents some concern before choosing to vaccinate their children”. Facebook has pledged to tackle the problem of anti-vaccination crisis on its platform, but most of the measures they have announced are either insufficient in combatting the rampant misinformation or haven’t implemented them. YouTube is another platform that is used by anti-vaxxers groups to spread misinformation.

YouTube introduced several measures recently to combat this flow of misinformation. They now prevent channels that promote anti-vax content from running advertising, saying explicitly that such videos fall under its policy prohibiting the monetization of videos with “dangerous and harmful” content. Videos that contain anti-vaccination content now have a Wikipedia link appended to them, taking readers to an article on vaccine hesitancy. YouTube has also tweaked their algorithms so when certain keywords are entered into their search engines, the results will highlight information from credible sources. However, their system still includes anti-vax videos in the suggested content. YouTube still has a long way to go to ensure that it does not facilitate such misinformation.

A growing number of people get medical information from Facebook and YouTube. Although these platforms have started to take action against anti-vaccination groups, they need to do more. Most importantly, they need to stop taking advertising revenue from them; they can’t claim to fight misinformation while profiting from it. Anti-vaccination groups must be deplatformed. Deplatforming works: just ask Milo Yiannopoulos, whose exit from social media was part of spectacular fall from grace and a $4 million debt. A similar approach is needed to make these groups a lot less accessible and protect vulnerable parents from being targeted by them. Tweaking algorithms in a way that the system does not suggest anti-vax channels is another step platforms can take to stop the spread of misinformation. There are still a lot of holes in the ship that they haven’t managed to plug just yet. The fact that these platforms make an immense amount of money from these groups may be a reason behind heir reticence. Facebook and YouTube need to start prioritizing people’s lives over the almighty dollar, and we as users need to pressure them to do so.

This blog is part of the Community Summit Classroom Partnership blog series. 

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