Facebook needs to work harder at cracking down on these groups. Picture: iStock
Facebook needs to work harder at cracking down on these groups. Picture: iStock

Anti-vax movement still running rife on Facebook


Anti-vax lies on social networks are making me sick.

Perhaps it was the video suggesting "procurement companies" were delaying abortions to harvest babies' hearts for vaccines (they're not).

Perhaps it was the "wheel of vaccine misfortune" that listed autism and Alzheimer's as vaccination outcomes (they're not).

Or perhaps it was all the Facebook listings to buy anti-vaccination books, CDs, movie tickets and T-shirts that finally tipped it for me.

Whatever the trigger, it is sickening to think multibillion-dollar companies still allow this deeply harmful and discredited information to spread on their platforms.

It has the potential to damage the people involved, their unconsenting children, and more naive individuals who get sucked into one of the most harmful conspiracy theories of modern life. Amplifying this information is truly indefensible.

Anti-vax groups are still running rife on Facebook. Picture: iStock
Anti-vax groups are still running rife on Facebook. Picture: iStock

I was exposed to the virus that the anti-vax movement as part of an investigation into anti-vaccine ads running on Facebook.

The world's largest social media platform announced a crackdown on vaccine misinformation in March, promising to reject ads with false facts about immunisation "when we find" them, deprioritise and stop recommending these groups, and shut down anti-vax fundraisers.

But this "crackdown" has huge cracks in it.

So far, Facebook's move has forced one group to change its name (Anti-Vaccination Australia is now People for Informed Consent Australia, but its content is the same).

It's also removed some paid advertisements for anti-vax causes, but there are others still active and easy to find.

And Facebook has added links to the World Health Organisation that appear after some searches or in some groups on its site. They're dismissed with a click or a scroll.

This "crackdown" has not affected most Australian anti-vax groups, both public and private, that count thousands of members and likes.

There are still anti-vaccine fundraisers on Facebook, groups still pay to advertise unproven "homoeopathic" vaccine alternatives, and Facebook even allows groups to sell their anti-vax merchandise.



Plus, after a few searches on the topic, Facebook started recruiting for the anti-vax groups, proactively suggesting new organisations for me to join. So much for keeping it in a dark corner.

It wouldn't take much human moderation to identify the most dangerous groups. Some pretend to be about healthy remedies, but their content contradicts their description.

People for Informed Consent Australia, for example, call themselves a collective to "discuss issues concerning their health and welfare". But a recent thread mocked the appearance of vaccinated children, with members stating they look "as though the light has gone out," "pale and dark under the eyes," and that their "liver and kidneys are overloaded".

As someone who did not enjoy the measles experience, I would suggest vaccinated children look much healthier than the alternative.

So why isn't this damaging information being identified and removed from Facebook? Amazon, YouTube, and even Pinterest reject it.

Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg dismissed calls to remove these groups due to free speech issues. "The debate has to happen," she said. "The way you can say something is false is you have to be able to say, 'Here's the true side of the story,' and we want that debate to happen so that people do get educated and understand that the science is settled."

Social networks have a duty to help protect their users. Picture: iStock
Social networks have a duty to help protect their users. Picture: iStock

But the way to educate people is not to actively recruit them to a dangerously one-sided, anti-vaccination group. Education should not involve taking money to advertise vaccination 'alternatives'. And education should not spread clearly false and damaging information.

Here is some actual education.

Sixty public health leaders signed a document this year urging social media companies to stop vaccination misinformation that "threatens the personal and community protection these vaccines offer".

The World Health Organisation warned of a 300 per cent rise in measles cases in the first three months of 2019.

Measles is also on the rise in Australia, with 243 cases reported by the end of October, along with 9641 cases of whooping cough, 3268 cases of chickenpox, and 11,457 cases of shingles.

Australia's vaccination rates are still below the national goal of 95 per cent, and both children and adults with compromised immune systems rely on herd immunity to protect them from harm.

Armed with this education, surely social networks have a duty to help protect them and the rest of their users.

Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson is a News Corp Australia's News360 national technology editor.