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Health experts want better policing of anti-vaxxer content online by tech, social media giants

Last Updated Jul 3, 2019 at 7:59 am PDT

(Source: iStock)
Summary

Health experts are calling on companies like Google, Facebook to do more to police online anti-vaxxer content

Health experts say tech giants need to do more to stop "misinformation" around vaccinations from spreading

Earlier this year, WHO listed 'vaccine hesitancy' as one of the top 10 threats to human health around the world

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Global health experts want major media companies to crack down on anti-vaxxers.

Professors from Harvard, UCLA, Yale, the London School of Hygiene, and Tropical Medicine were among those who wrote a piece on vaccination acceptance, and the importance immunizations can have on public health.

Professors from Harvard, UCLA, Yale, the London School of Hygiene, and Tropical Medicine were among those who wrote a piece on vaccination acceptance, and the importance immunizations can have on public health.

Those behind the publication note that while the “overwhelming majority” of parents and doctors support and use childhood vaccines every year, “the sustained, global campaign of vaccine misinformation, driven substantially through the social media, has shaken the confidence of increasingly large numbers of parents concerned about their children’s well-being.”

It’s for this reason that these experts are calling on tech giants like Google, Facebook and Twitter to monitor anti-vaxxer claims and messages online to prevent them from spreading what it terms misinformation.

The experts are calling on major search engines and social media giants to “Develop principles that distinguish ‘levels of evidence’ in the vaccine information they provide so that they can improve identification of disproven/inaccurate false claims about vaccine safety for their users that have led to the return of childhood diseases, just as they do for sexually explicit, violent and threatening messages.”

They’re also looking for these organizations to include information from “robust scientific sources,” adding unscientific information can put vulnerable people at “unnecessary and avoidable risk of serious complications, long term disability and potentially of death.”

Earlier this year the World Health Organization listed “vaccine hesitancy” as one of the top 10 threats to human health around the world.

The experts are also calling on governments, policymakers, advocates, educators, and philanthropists to do their part in supporting laws around childhood vaccinations, disseminating reliable and accurate information to the public, and to promote “community protection.”

A challenging task

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious disease specialist based out of Toronto General Hospital, says while he supports the promotion of truth, science, and good public health policy, he believes what the health experts are asking tech giants to do isn’t simple.

“When it comes to policing the internet, it seems to be … trickier to do and easier said than done,” he explains. “By no means do I agree with anyone in the ‘anti-vaxx movement,’ but on the other hand, I think we have to balance people’s freedom of speech with public health and public safety.”

He says these are difficult questions to tackle, and admits the solution may not be as straightforward as some believe.

“What we’re seeing is not just the peddling of misinformation online, but we’re also seeing the amplification of this misinformation online and, in some cases, but not all, we’re seeing evidence of some nefarious practices online where people, for whatever motive, are intentionally planting ideas and thoughts and amplifying these ideas and thoughts in communities where they don’t even live, to stir the pot, as it were.”

Some people will point to things like violent content or pornography being “policed” online. So why can’t anti-vaxxer claims be viewed the same way?

“I don’t disagree — I think that there should be some element of, I’m not sure if policing is the right word, but some element of monitoring what ideas are pervasive and how these are affecting society in general, and really understanding better the interaction between peddling misinformation online and how it’s impacting policy and how it’s impacting human behaviour,” Bogoch says.

He’s concerned with the “bigger picture,” and says people do have the right to make decisions that impact their own bodies. However, he takes issue with these decisions if they’re made based on movements that stem from misinformation.

“Is policing the internet the only solution here? I doubt it, it probably isn’t. This is going to take a large effort with multiple stakeholders involved to really combat this movement, and certainly the internet is going to be one of the battle grounds, as it were,” Bogoch explains.

“But we really have to do a better job informing people on what vaccines are, how they work, how they’ve changed and transformed the planet by providing health and safety and enabling people to live into adulthood.”