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Major social media companies want to combat misinformation about vaccines. Getty Images
  • Pinterest, Facebook, and Instagram have put in safeguards to help combat health misinformation online.
  • Healthcare providers say misinformation online has hindered their ability to reach certain people.
  • In particular, misinformation about vaccines has helped lead to the ongoing spike of measles cases in the United States.

The internet can be a breeding ground for misinformation, with few controls to ensure that what pops up on your cousin’s Facebook news feed or on a Pinterest search is true.

Healthcare providers are especially concerned with how this is affecting people searching for medical information.

In particular, misinformation about vaccines has become so pervasive online that in March, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) penned a letter urging major technology companies to combat this trend.

Now as measles cases top 1,200 in the United States, social media platforms are attempting to combat erroneous information being shared online.

This week, Facebook and Instagram announced that users searching for vaccine-related content or clicking on related hashtags will see educational pop-up windows.

In the United States, Facebook and Instagram users will see messages from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other countries, messages will come from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Pinterest recently made the choice to customize its search engine when people type in terms such as “measles” and “vaccine safety.” When users search for health terms, Pinterest will only show content from leading public health institutions.

“You won’t see any recommendations or comments on Pins in these results,” the social media platform said in a statement.

And they won’t feature ads for health-related searches.

“We’re taking this approach because we believe that showing vaccine misinformation alongside resources from public health experts isn’t responsible,” the statement said.

The move against vaccine misinformation comes as a result of a documented increase in vaccine hesitancy. In fact, the WHO named vaccine hesitancy among the top 10 threats to global health this year.

One of the biggest vaccine-related myths online is that the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine is linked to autism. That myth originated with a now debunked 1998 medical study that involved 12 children but has spread online for years, especially in certain groups.

In return, the AAP can counter with numerous studies, such as one in Annals of Internal Medicine that followed almost 660,000 children and found no connection between the vaccine and autism.

But despite years of research finding vaccines are safe and no link between vaccines and autism, these myths are widespread in certain pockets of the country.

A report published in April found that people who are opposed to vaccination are connecting via social media.

To battle the spread of inaccurate information, clinicians and researchers need to come up with interventions, according to Elizabeth M. Felter, DrPH, an assistant professor of behavioral and community health sciences at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Those opposed to vaccinations often misrepresent data, knowingly or unknowingly, which can skew others’ perception of risk,” Felter told Healthline.

“Media literacy interventions or those using novel communication techniques, such as entertainment narratives, may be effective tools to combat misinformation,” she said.

There are several challenges in overcoming the spread of misinformation on any health topic, says Dr. David H. Gorski, a professor at Wayne State University who’s the managing editor of Science-Based Medicine.

“There are so many quacks and other actors promoting so much medical misinformation and so few of us trying to combat it,” Gorski said.

Another issue is that people promoting inaccurate information often attack others defending the information.

Doctors trying to share information have been victim to fake negative reviews and online harassment, Gorski told Healthline.

Social networks may be able to “censor” misinformation, but if parents start their own blogs and use their own websites, there’s nothing that can be done to stop them without infringing on free speech, Gorski explains.

“As long as there’s the First Amendment, there’s really nothing that can be done to stop the spread of medical misinformation, other than social media companies policing their own platforms,” he said, adding that there’s little or no transparency in how they do that. “Misinformation is the price we pay for freedom of speech.”

Wen-Ying Sylvia Chou, PhD, MPH, program director of the health communications and informatics research branch of the National Cancer Institute, researches health as it relates to internet usage.

“The lines between accurate and inaccurate… ‘good’ and ‘bad’ information is at times blurry,” Chou said.

In a way, tackling vaccine misinformation online may be easier than other health topics, such as dietary choices and disease treatment options. That’s because the science pointing to minimal risks and documented health benefits are clear, Chou says.

“It may require bold and innovative efforts to address mistrust, silos, conspiracy theories, and policy-level changes such as exemption rules, but we have a lot of options to explore and stakeholders are taking actions,” she said.

Social media platforms can no longer view themselves solely as technology companies profiting from user engagement and data, Chou notes.

“They have to assume responsibility if the engagement and user-generated content is causing public harm, such as vaccine misinformation causing hesitancy, which leads to the return of communicable diseases such as the measles,” Chou said.

Social media isn’t the only media catching on. SELF magazine recently launched free original images “to increase confidence in vaccines,” the AAP said in a statement.

Chou says it’s a challenge to create safe online spaces for parents to share concerns and fear, because social media has recently been affected by bots, trolls, and malicious actors conveying discord on a variety of health topics — including vaccines.

This is why clinicians have such an important role to play. They need to listen to parents’ concerns and explain the science behind health information, including vaccines.

“People with genuine questions and concerns want to be heard and validated instead of mocked, so they can be helped to make an informed decision rather than moving further away from their clinicians,” Chou added.