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Anti-vaxx propaganda is flooding the internet. Will tech companies act?
The Guardian, Tue 5 Mar 2019
When it comes to providing accurate medical information, social media is a hot mess. Reporting by the
Guardian and elsewhere over the last few months has revealed many troubling examples: the top
searches for vaccines on Amazon turn up anti-vaxx books instead; YouTube purposely keeps viewers
on its website by suggesting increasingly conspiratorial content; Facebook is a safe haven for
propagandists anti-vaxx profiteers.
The result? We are experiencing rising outbreaks of eliminated diseases like measles, and the World
Health Organization has named vaccine hesitancy one of the top threats to global health in 2019. At the
center of this storm are online “echo chambers” which suck in concerned parents behind walled gardens
rife with anti-vaxx material. Many of these echo chambers – pages and online groups like “Vaccine
Resistance Movement”– have hundreds of thousands of followers. Where do they come from? Much of
the blame can be placed on profiteers: those who seek to exploit the ignorance and fears of parents and
others for financial gain.
Take Andrew Wakefield, for example, whose medical license was revoked for false claims linking the
MMR vaccine and autism, yet continues to profit through his propagandistic film Vaxxed, which has
made almost $1.2m at the box office.
Profiteers are responsible for gatekeeping many of the staunch anti-vaccine communities found on social
media, where anyone who expresses an opinion contrary to theirs is attacked and banned from the group
in order to keep the echo chamber as tight as possible. It is through these echo chambers that profiteers
continue making money; they sell their own books and alternative lifestyles. Any dissenting voice is a
threat to their finances, so they encourage intense groupthink and mob mentality.
Most people who choose not to vaccinate are not making their decisions out of malice but because of a
lack of scientific literacy and falling for emotional traps. Many have fallen victim to the false information
propagated by profiteers and the like, who capitalize on scare tactics. For too long public health
advocates have conceded crucial ground to anti-vaxxers, who have become much more adept at
cultivating online communities. It’s time to change that and meet people where they’re at.
However, all of our hard work as advocates is undercut unless technology companies themselves change
too. These companies can shut down echo chambers and stop profiteers by being more proactive.
One option is to completely ban anti-vaxx groups, which would help limit the spread of dangerous
misinformation. However, it’s possible that banning these groups outright may produce unintended
consequences. For example, these groups are currently relatively easy to observe and track, but they
may go underground, where they will be much harder to follow; members are already talking about
moving their platforms to alternative sites like MeWe. Another option in the case of Facebook is to open
private vaccine groups up to the public so that anyone can join them without the threat of being banned.
Ultimately, these reactive measures and good intentions alone may not be enough to truly eliminate all
the damaging misinformation floating on the internet. The fundamental issue isn’t just how our social
media platforms are moderated, it’s how tech companies make money. These platforms use algorithms
that keep us glued to their sites as long as possible so they can serve us ads. This has a dark consequence:
their proprietary code has deciphered that the best way to make our attention stick is by suggesting
increasingly extremist and conspiratorial content to us. Social media has been weaponized to serve ads.