Vaccine wars: Social media battle outbreak of bogus claims

Searches of Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram turn up all sorts of bogus warnings about vaccines

Like health officials facing outbreaks of disease, internet companies are trying to contain vaccine-related misinformation they have long helped spread. So far, their efforts at quarantine are falling short.

Searches of Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram turn up all sorts of bogus warnings about vaccines, including the soundly debunked notions that they cause autism or that mercury preservatives and other substances in them can poison and even kill people.

Some experts fear that the online spread of bad information about vaccines is planting or reinforcing fears in parents, and they suspect it is contributing to the comeback in recent years of certain dangerous childhood diseases, including measles, whooping cough and mumps.

“The online world has been one that has been very much taken over by misinformation spread by concerned parents,” said Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy and sociology at the University of California, Riverside, who studies vaccine trends. “Medical doctors don’t command the sort of authority they did decades ago. There is a lack of confidence in institutions people had faith in.”

The effort to screen out bogus vaccine information online is one more front in the battle by social media to deal with fake news of all sorts, including political propaganda. (Researchers have even found Russia-linked bots trying to sow discord by amplifying both sides of the vaccine debate.)

Pinterest, the digital scrapbooking and search site that has been a leading online repository of vaccine misinformation, took the seemingly drastic step in 2017 of blocking all searches for the term “vaccines.”

But it’s been a leaky quarantine. Recently, a search for “measles vaccine” still brought up, among other things, a post titled “Why We Said NO to the Measles Vaccine,” along with a sinister-looking illustration of a hand holding an enormous needle titled “Vaccine-nation: poisoning the population one shot at a time.”

READ MORE: B.C. mom’s petition to make vaccines mandatory at 35,000 signatures

READ MORE: 70% of Canadians agree with mandatory vaccines for children: poll

Facebook, meanwhile, said in March that it would no longer recommend groups and pages that spread hoaxes about vaccines, and that it would reject ads that do this. This appears to have filtered out some of the most blatant sources of vaccine misinformation, such as the website Naturalnews.com.

But even after the changes, anti-vax groups were among the first results to come up on a search of “vaccine safety.” A search of “vaccine,” meanwhile, turns up the verified profile of Dr. Christiane Northrup, a physician who is outspoken in her misgivings about — and at times opposition to — vaccines.

On Facebook’s Instagram, hashtags such as “vaccineskill” and accounts against vaccinating children are easily found with a simple search for “vaccines.”

The discredited ideas circulating online include the belief that the recommended number of shots for babies is too much for their bodies to handle, that vaccines infect people with the same viruses they are trying to prevent, or that the natural immunity conferred by catching a disease is better than vaccines.

In truth, fear and suspicion of vaccines have been around as long as vaccines have existed. Smallpox inoculations caused a furor in colonial New England in the 1700s. And anti-vaccine agitation existed online long before Facebook and Twitter.

Still, experts in online misinformation say social networking and the way its algorithms disseminate the most “engaging” posts — whether true or not — have fueled the spread of anti-vaccination propaganda and pushed parents into the anti-vax camp.

Jeanine Guidry, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who studies social media and vaccines, said social media amplifies these conversations and creates echo chambers that can reinforce bad information.

Carpiano said it is difficult to document the actual effect social media has had on vaccination rates, but “we do see decrease in coverage and rise in gaps of coverage,” as well as clusters of vaccine-hesitant people.

Despite high-profile outbreaks , overall vaccination rates remain high in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the percentage of children under 2 who haven’t received any vaccines is growing.

Some of the fake news online about health and medicine appears to be spread by people who may genuinely believe it. Some seems intended to wreak havoc in public discourse. And some appears to be for financial gain.

InfoWars, the conspiracy site run by right-wing provocateur Alex Jones, routinely pushes anti-vax information and stories of “forced inoculations” while selling what are billed as immune supplements. Naturalnews.com sells such products, too.

“It is a misinformation campaign,” Carpiano said. “Often couched in ‘Oh, we are for choice, understanding, education,’” he said. “But fundamentally it is not open to scientific debate.”

Barbara Ortutay, The Associated Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A second wave of COVID-19 is probable, if history tells us anything

B.C.’s top doctor says that what health officials have learned this round will guide response in future

Canfor announces permanent closure of Isle Pierre Mill

The company also announced curtailments at their pulp mills in Prince George.

COVID-19 and returning to safe operation

WorkSafeBC recognizes the importance of worker safety as businesses look to resume… Continue reading

Local governments receiving provincial grants

Meant for infrastructure projects and planning

LIVE: Procession to honour Snowbirds Capt. Jennifer Casey comes to Halifax

Snowbirds service member died in a crash in Kamloops one week ago

RCMP facing ‘systemic sustainability challenges’ due to provincial policing role

Provinces, territories and municipalities pay anywhere from 70 to 90 per cent of the cost of the RCMP’s services

One man dead after standoff with Chilliwack RCMP

The Independent Investigations Office of B.C. is investigating the RCMP’s role in the death

B.C. employers worry about safety, cash flow, second wave in COVID-19 restart

A survey found 75 per cent of businesses worry about attracting customers

Introducing the West Coast Traveller: A voyage of the mind

Top armchair travel content for Alaska, Yukon, BC, Alberta, Washington, Oregon and California!

Ex-BC Greens leader Andrew Weaver says province came close to early election

Disagreement centred on the LNG Canada project in northern B.C.

Canada’s NHL teams offer options to season-ticket holders

Canadian teams are offering refunds, but also are pushing a number of incentives to let them keep the money

B.C. premier says lessons to learn from past racism during response to pandemic

B.C. formally apologized in the legislature chamber in 2008 for its role in the Komagata Maru tragedy

Snowbirds to remain at Kamloops Airport indefinitely after fatal crash

small contingent of the Snowbirds team is staying in Kamloops, acting as stewards of the jets

Most Read