Facebook Is Finally Targeting Anti-Vax Pages and Groups

The changes come months after the start of the vaccine rollout in the U.S.

Facebook logo is displayed on a mobile phone screen with the words COVID-19 blurred in the background on a laptop screen
Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook announced in a blog post on Monday that it intends to start removing vaccine misinformation from groups and pages, expanding its focus on “debunked claims” about the Covid-19 vaccine.

“We’re running the largest worldwide campaign to promote authoritative information about COVID-19 vaccines,” wrote Kang-Xing Jin, Facebook’s head of health, adding that “following consultations with leading health organizations, including the WHO, we’re expanding the list of false claims we will remove to include additional debunked claims about COVID-19 and vaccines.”

“Today’s change was a response to a ruling from Facebook’s Oversight Board,” the New York Times reported. In an issuance of its recent rulings last month, the Facebook Oversight Board, an internally founded and funded third-party review body, called the company’s application of its policies to vaccine content “inappropriately vague” and encouraged Facebook to create a new community standard on health misinformation.

Anti-vaccine groups and content continue to propagate on Facebook and Instagram despite the company’s previous commitments to remove posts spreading misinformation debunked by health experts. In October 2020, Facebook prohibited the purchasing of anti-vaccine ads. In December, as the United States began its nationwide vaccine rollout, Facebook said it would target Covid-19 vaccine hoaxes, noting, “We will not be able to start enforcing these policies overnight.” Later that month, OneZero found numerous anti-vax groups blatantly spreading misinformation about the vaccine, such as the baseless claim that it can change a recipient’s DNA.

At the time, Facebook did not respond to OneZero’s questions on how it would be enforcing these policies in groups.

The update expands Facebook’s moderation efforts to all vaccines, not just the Covid-19 immunization. It also implies that Facebook will be targeting vaccine misinformation across groups and pages, which is where anti-vax ideology has been allowed to flourish en masse, and sometimes in secret with private communities.

OneZero has identified dozens of active groups, many of them private, dedicated to vaccine hoaxes and discouraging other members from receiving the Covid-19 shots. Often, the group names reference “vaccine injury” or “vaccine side effects” or cater to the anti-vax parents movement.

“We’re running the largest worldwide campaign to promote authoritative information about COVID-19 vaccines.”

Since the start of vaccine rollout in the United States, members of these groups have especially mobilized around the false belief that Americans are being forced to receive the injection against their will. This is in spite of Facebook guidelines that specifically prohibit “false claims about the vaccines or vaccination programs that public health experts have advised us could lead to COVID-19 vaccine rejection.”

“Just wow. Mother goes in and has a UTI then she refuses to take a covid test and they hold her hostage and will not let the mom go home,” one member of the group “Covid 19 vaccine injury” wrote this weekend. The post links to a video on far right hosting platform Bitchute titled “AMERICAN HOSPITALS KIDNAPPING PATIENTS — REFUSE TO RELEASE THEM UNLESS THEY SUBMIT TO COVID TEST.”

“How many of you would like to discuss how we can prepare for Great reset?” wrote a member in a poll posted to another group called “Say No Covid 19 Vaccine,” referring to an unfounded conspiracy theory that claims world leaders manufactured the pandemic to seize control of the global economy. Ninety-five people responded “yes” to the Facebook poll.

Facebook has continued to struggle to catch vaccine misinformation across the platform and at times explored measures other than removing anti-vax content, such as downgrading groups and pages in search results. The New York Times notes that CEO Mark Zuckerberg had long been reluctant to wholesale remove false vaccine claims that didn’t pose the threat of “immediate, direct physical harm.”

The company has also failed to deliver on some of its previous plans to rein in vaccine misinformation. For example, after Facebook promised to ban anti-vax ads in 2019, BuzzFeed News discovered that these ads persisted on the platform into January 2020.

The result of the company’s inability to curtail the explosion of vaccine content on its site has been the mobilization of online communities into real-world acts of violence and harm.

Last month, an anti-vax protest at Dodgers Stadium, where vaccines were being administered to Los Angeles residents, was organized on a Facebook page that promoted pandemic misinformation, reported the Washington Post. “The online activity illustrates the extent to which Facebook remains a critical organizing tool of the anti-vaccine movement,” the Washington Post noted.

Staff writer at OneZero covering social platforms, internet communities, and the spread of misinformation online. Previously: VICE

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