U.S. lawmakers are questioning health officials and tech giants on their efforts to combat the harmful anti-vaccine misinformation which is spreading at a fast pace online. This misinformation is also potentially responsible for adding on to the ongoing five measles outbreaks in the US.
Pinterest stands against misinformation
Pinterest has taken a strong stand against the spread of misinformation related to vaccines. It has blocked all “vaccination” related searches since most results showed scientifically disproven claim that vaccines aren’t safe.
On Wednesday the company said it won’t return any search results, including pins and boards, for the terms related to vaccinations, whether in favor or against them.
It was noted that the majority of shared images on Pinterest cautioned people against vaccinations, despite medical guidelines demonstrating that most vaccines are safe for most people. And the company has been taking an effort since quite some time now.
In a statement to CNBC, Pinterest told, “It’s been hard to remove this anti-vaccination content entirely, so it put the ban in place until it can figure out a more permanent strategy. It’s working with health experts including doctors, as well as the social media analysis company called Storyful to come up with a better solution.”
Pinterest has taken steps for blocking content promoting false cancer cures. Pinterest realized that a lot of such content was redirecting users to websites that discouraged them from getting traditional medical treatment, such as an essential oil claiming to be a cure for cancer.
A Pinterest spokesperson said, “We want Pinterest to be an inspiring place for people, and there’s nothing inspiring about misinformation. That’s why we continue to work on new ways of keeping misleading content off our platform and out of our recommendations engine.” People have been appreciating this move by the company.
Kudos to Pinterest for being thoughtful and deliberate about what they want to promote. And yes, private companies have no obligation to share your content with the wider world https://t.co/MiBth24fVA
— Ellen K. Pao (@ekp) February 21, 2019
Facebook and Google working against the ‘Anti-Vaccine’ trends
Last week, the committee announced that it will hold a hearing on the anti-vaccine subject on 5th March. Even Adam Schiff, a democrat from California, sent letters to Sundar Pichai, CEO at Google and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. In the letters, Schiff expressed concerns over the outbreaks and regarding the role of tech companies in the spread of medically inaccurate information.
Schiff wrote in the letters, “If concerned parents see phony vaccine information in their Facebook newsfeeds or YouTube recommendations, it could cause them to disregard the advice of their children’s physicians and public health experts and decline to follow the recommended vaccination schedule. Repetition of information, even if false, can often be mistaken for accuracy, and exposure to anti-vaccine content via social media may negatively shape user attitudes towards vaccination.”
Schiff even referenced an article by Guardian and reported that searches on both Facebook and YouTube easily led users to anti-vaccine news. He also expressed his concerns over a report that Facebook is accepting payments for anti-vaccine ads. Last week, an article published by The Daily Beast noted that seven Facebook pages to post and promote anti-vaccine news and targeted women over the age of 25.
In an emailed statement to Ars Technica, Facebook said, “We’ve taken steps to reduce the distribution of health-related misinformation on Facebook, but we know we have more to do. We’re currently working on additional changes that we’ll be announcing soon.”
According to Facebook, just by simply deleting anti-vaccine perspectives won’t work as an effective solution to the problem. They are thinking about ways to boost the availability of factual information on vaccines and further minimizing the spread of misinformation.
In a statement to Bloomberg, Facebook said that it was considering “reducing or removing this type of content from recommendations, including Groups You Should Join, and demoting it in search results, while also ensuring that higher quality and more authoritative information is available.”
Schiff wrote, “The algorithms which power these services are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information, and the consequences of that are particularly troubling for public health issues.”
Even on YouTube, the first result under a search for “vaccines” is a video showing a “middle ground” debate between supporters of vaccines and the ones against it. The fourth result is an episode of a popular anti-vaccine documentary series called “The Truth About Vaccines” which has around 1.2 million views.
Though Google has declined to comment on the letter from Schiff, the company noted that it has been working to improve its recommendation system. It is also making sure that relevant news sources and contextual information are at the top of search results.
Schiff also mentioned in his letter that he was happy how Google has already taken steps to improve the situation. He writes, “I was pleased to see YouTube’s recent announcement that it will no longer recommend videos that violate its community guidelines, such as conspiracy theories or medically inaccurate videos, and encourage further action to be taken related to vaccine misinformation.”
Last week, Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate health committee, along with ranking member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) wrote a letter to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Health and Human Services. The lawmakers inquired about what the health officials were doing for fighting misinformation and help states deal with outbreaks. The lawmaker wrote, “Many factors contribute to vaccine hesitancy, all of which demand attention from CDC and (HHS’ National Vaccine Program Office).”