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

Port Alberni homeowners wake up to would-be thief in their basement

Stolen items later found stashed at the end of the street

Shadow of Murder opens Feb. 21 at Capitol Theatre in Port Alberni

Classic whodunit comes from Canadian playwright Elizabeth Elwood

Wounded Warrior Run gets personal for Port Alberni RCMP participant

Run will come to Port Alberni on Thursday, Feb. 27; fundraising dinner planned for Legion Br. 293

Alberni Valley fire departments hold car wash to raise funds for Wounded Warriors Run

Come out Feb. 22 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. to learn more about the run

VIDEO: Illicit drug overdoses killed 981 in B.C. in 2019, down 38%

Chief coroner says figures were down about a third in the province’s fourth year of the opioid crisis

VIDEO: B.C.’s seventh coronavirus patient at home in Fraser Health region

Canada in ‘containment’ as COVID-19 spreads in other countries

B.C. takes over another Retirement Concepts senior care home

Summerland facility latest to have administrator appointed

RCMP pull office from Wet’suwet’en territory, but hereditary chiefs still want patrols to end

Chief says temporary closure of field office not enough as Coastal GasLink pipeline dispute drags on

Prescription opioids getting B.C. addicts off ‘poisoned’ street drugs

Minister Judy Darcy says Abbotsford pilot project working

Royals, Elvis, Captain Cook: Hundreds of wax figures find new life in B.C. man’s home

Former director of Victoria’s Royal London Wax Museum still hopes to revive wax figure tourism

Teck CEO says Frontier withdrawal a result of tensions over climate, reconciliation

Don Lindsay speaks at mining conference, a day after announcing suspension of oilsands project

Okanagan man swims across Columbia River to evade Trail police

RCMP Cpl. Devon Reid says the incident began the evening of Thursday, Feb. 20

‘Hilariously bad’: RCMP looking for couple with forged, paper Alberta licence plate

Mounties said the car crashed when it lost a wheel but the duo ran away as police arrived

Most Read