Facebook aims to reduce ‘anti-vaxxer’ messages, ads as part of ‘safety’ campaign

VANCOUVER — Facebook should ban posts by so-called anti-vaxxers in order to protect children against measles and other contagious diseases, says a British Columbia mother who launched a petition urging parents to start home schooling if they’re against immunization.

Katie Clunn of Maple Ridge said Friday the social media giant must go beyond reducing its distribution of such content as well as the ranking of groups and pages that spread misinformation, according to its new policy.

“I don’t think it should be reduced, I think it should be all-out banned,” she said. ”Why are we OK with misinformation that’s putting children at harm?”

Nearly 45,000 people have signed Clunn’s petition since she started it about three weeks ago after a measles outbreak that has now reached at least 17 cases in Metro Vancouver.

Clunn said she attempted to draw attention to the issue of vaccinations about three years ago in her local school district but only about 100 people signed a petition as groups opposed to vaccination seemed to be increasingly using Facebook as a platform to spread their message.

The mother of two children, aged six and nine, said the site that has been widely accused of allowing misinformation to continue on a range of topics needs to do more to protect youth from “dangerous” groups that deal in paranoia, not science.

Facebook said it would not ban anti-vaccination content.

“We have long believed that simply removing provocative thinking such as this does little to build awareness around facts and different approaches to health,” it said in a statement. “Counter-speech in the form of accurate information from experts in the field … can help create a safer and more respectful environment.”

The company said it is exploring ways to provide more accurate information from expert groups such as the World Health Organization about vaccines at the top of results for related searches, on pages discussing the topic and on invitations to join groups.

It said it would detect misinformation from groups with names that may not suggest opposition to immunization through its artificial intelligence system, which is “constantly scanning posts and links shared on Facebook” and that a team would confirm if the content violates the company’s policies.

“A team at Facebook will use guidelines based on the most widely debunked vaccine hoaxes published by health experts,” it said. “Posts from violating groups and pages containing these hoaxes will appear lower in News Feed and will be removed from search results and group recommendations.”

Fuyuki Kurasawa, a sociologist and director of the global digital citizenship lab at York University in Toronto, said Facebook could have gone as far as Pinterest by banning all vaccine content.

“(Pinterest) couldn’t keep up with the number of attempts to deceive either their human moderation or their algorithms, whether it be anti-vaxxing or pro-vaxxing,” said Kurasawa, who analyzes controversial issues on social media platforms around the rejection of scientific expertise, including vaccinations, climate change and gender-based violence.

He said Facebook, as well as other companies including Google, has been “asleep at the switch” on the impact of such content but is now trying to develop a response.

“What they’re fearful of is government regulation and any sort of intervention with their business model so they’re going to, as much as possible, be relatively evasive while at the same time try to address the issue without compromising their commercial interests.”

Anti-vaxxers have used social media to spread misinformation about the highly contagious disease, some maintaining the measles, mumps and rubella or MMR vaccine causes autism despite that belief being repeatedly debunked through scientific research.

Despite the lack of evidence between the vaccine and the neurobehavioural condition, more parents appear to be shunning immunization, with public health experts warning the progress made against the disease that was declared eradicated in Canada in 1998 could be threatened, with consequences including hearing loss and inflammation of the brain greatest for children.

On Wednesday, Health Canada issued an advisory about “false claims” in the marketing of homeopathic remedies, known as nosodes, being promoted as alternatives to vaccines.

“If we identify any non-compliance with the Food and Drugs Act or its regulations we will take action,” the department said.

“Children given nosodes instead of vaccinations are at risk of developing serious and potentially fatal childhood illnesses such as measles, mumps, rubella, polio and whooping cough. Vaccination continues to be the very best way to prevent serious infectious diseases and to protect yourself, your family and your community.”

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