In The Politics of Autism, I look at the discredited notion that vaccines cause autism. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms have helped spread this dangerous myth.
Facebook promised to institute a stricter policy on anti-vaccination misinformation in ads back in February, a policy it expanded sitewide in March. That crackdown, however, appears to be penalizing some legitimate healthcare providers while letting some anti-vaccine conspiracies slide, even as the United States faces its largest outbreak of diseases preventable by vaccines in decades.
This month, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, the state’s official health department, bought 14 ads to promote a statewide program providing free pediatric vaccinations. Facebook removed all of them.
During the same time period, Children’s Health Defense, an anti-vaccine nonprofit founded and chaired by the nation’s most prominent vaccine conspiracy theorist, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., successfully placed more than 10 ads stoking unfounded fear about vaccines and other medical conspiracy theories.
The Minnesota Hospital Association, which lobbies the Minnesota legislature on behalf of the state’s hospitals, buys Facebook ads to fight vaccine disinformation and promote conversations with healthcare providers about vaccines. Over the last two months, Facebook has removed dozens of their ads. Facebook flags the group’s advertisements referencing vaccines far more often than any of its other ad campaigns, which cover medical issues like mental illness, addiction, and vaping-related illnesses.
Archived ads in Facebook’s Ad Library reveal an unpredictable approach to moderation. The social network blocked one Minnesota Hospitals ad that read, “MYTH: Vaccines will infect me with the disease I am trying to prevent” but allowed another with similar text: “MYTH: Vaccines cause autism.” Both led to the same webpage, which advised visitors to talk to their doctors about vaccinations.