More than half of parents with children under age 5 report being exposed to negative or inaccurate information about vaccines on social media.
Social media is an accepted part of everyday life for many people.
Millions turn to Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms to connect with friends, share photos, and follow the latest headlines — all for free.
But in exchange for all of this free content, people agree to share aspects of their personal data, which marketers, publishers, and other groups can leverage and use to target users with ads, sponsored posts, or videos.
While all of the major social media platforms have policies in place to protect users from dangerous content — sponsored or otherwise — no system is perfect, and there’s always potential for abuse.
According to a new report out of the United Kingdom, parents are often being targeted with potentially dangerous and misleading information about vaccines from social media.
As part of the Moving the Needle study, researchers with the Royal Society of Public Health (RSPH) surveyed more than 2,600 parents last May. They found that 2 out of 5 parents with children under the age of 18 said they had “often or sometimes” been exposed to misleading information about vaccines on social media platforms.
That number was even higher for parents with children under 5 years old. Half had been exposed to the negative messages.
The RSPH is an independent health education charity. The group says the report was sponsored by vaccine maker MSD, though when asked, the RSPH defended the findings.
Toby Green, senior policy and research executive for RSPH, told Healthline via email, “There was no input from MSD in the process from start to finish, either in a practical or editorial sense.”
The report also found that 82 percent of 2,000 adults they surveyed said social media platforms should take steps to limit “fake news” regarding vaccines.
Now the charity is calling on platforms in the United Kingdom to police their own sites.
Healthline found the visual search engine Pinterest has a specific policy about misinformation about vaccines and other health-related topics, including fake cancer cures.
That policy is spelled out in its community guidelines:
“We don’t allow advice when it has immediate and detrimental effects on a pinner’s health or on public safety. This includes promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice.”
Ifeoma Ozoma, public policy and social impact manager for Pinterest, told Healthline the company’s policy has been in place since 2017. She says the company relies on outside help to formulate its guidelines.
“We know we’re not the experts on everything, so it’s really important to us to seek guidance from actual experts on these topics,” Ozoma said. “We look to agencies like the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and academic researchers who are writing on this as well,” she added.
Ozoma says the company monitors the platform in-house and also asks users to report content they find questionable or disturbing.
“We have taken down pins from across the platform. There were both big accounts and individual pinners that were removed,” Ozoma said.
The founder of GreenMedInfo told Healthline that Pinterest took down his group’s content in December 2018.
Sayer Ji denies he’s an “anti-vaxxer.” He said he “focuses on collating the peer-reviewed published research that indicates there are harms that are underreported, if not completely denied, by conventional medical authorities and or conventional media.”
“That’s different than being anti-vaccine,” Ji said. “Nowhere do I say you shouldn’t vaccinate. I believe in informed parental choice.”
“Pinterest has determined we’re a site that’s sending harmful messages to their users because the information we share diverges from their political agenda,” he added. “In their eyes, vaccines are safe and effective, a priori, and that there’s no one who should question that.”
What was the impact of the takedown?
“We haven’t been adversely affected. In fact, after the ban from Pinterest, our traffic increased significantly,” Ji said.
“We’re not dependent on social media, because we have an email list of over 300,000 subscribers who elect to receive our information directly,” Ji added.
Facebook is the largest of the social media networks. In response to our questions about whether the platform is addressing the spread of misinformation on vaccines via social media, Facebook sent Healthline this statement:
“We have a set of Community Standards that outline what is and isn’t allowed on Facebook. While we work hard to remove content that violates our policies, we also give our community tools to control what they see as well as use Facebook to speak up and share perspectives with the community around them. If the content they’re posting crosses the line and violates our policies, we would remove the content as soon as we become aware of it.”
A spokesperson also told Healthline that Facebook is looking for potential ways to make it easier to get educational information about vaccines.
The British study reported that 9 out of 10 parents surveyed thought vaccines were important for their child’s health. It also found that parents trust their doctors and nurses as a source of reliable information about vaccines.
The report urged doctors to take every opportunity to get vaccine information to parents.
In the United States, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has put together this online kit to help healthcare providers talk to parents about vaccines.
The AAP has also put together information for parents on vaccines, which is available here.