Social Media and the Fight Against Misinformation
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With the rise of social media has come more access to information and content; however, with that rise in information access has come the rise of misinformation access. According to an article in The Guardian, half of new parents are shown anti-vaccination content on social media. Often organizations such as “Stop Mandatory Vaccination” will target advertisements and articles towards new parents and give misleading facts about the health risks of vaccinating a child. This spread of misinformation has lead to real world consequences, and social media outlets such as Pinterest and GoFundMe are fighting an uphill battle to stave off the effects that the rise of the anti-vaccination movement has had.
Anti-vaccination movements are not new. In fact, from the invention of the vaccine, there have also been plenty of objections against vaccination (History of Vaccines). When Edward Jenner invented the first vaccination method against smallpox, he was immediately met with protests, and when the English government passed the Vaccination Act of 1853, an act that made children required to get a smallpox vaccination, the Anti-Vaccination League and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League were formed and started to publish journals against compulsory vaccination. In the modern day, since the 90s, there have been allegations against vaccinations about the link between autism in children and vaccinations. One of these doctors, Andrew Wakefield, lead the charge against compulsory vaccination until it was found that he was falsifying data for financial gain and subsequently had his medical license revoked. Today, we have many anti-vaccination communities on social media that spread faulty data or inspire skepticism against vaccinating children. For instance, an anti-vaccination organization informs readers that vaccines contain an amount of aluminum in vaccines and refer to it as a ‘neurotoxin’ even though babies will get multitudes more of aluminum through breastfeeding (NCBI).
With more people taking stock in the anti-vaccination ideology, there have been real-world consequences to society at large. Vaccinations do not just help prevent a kid from getting a disease, it also helps to protect those who can’t get the vaccine for whatever reason, such as having a compromised immune system. If less able people get vaccinations, it is more likely that a disease can infect more people. In the United States, due to the decline of vaccination, 555 cases of measles has been declared in the last 4 months even though the disease was declared eliminated in 2000 (NBC). During the time of this writing, New York City has declared a national health emergency as it grapples with the worst outbreak of measles it has had in nearly 30 years. Measles is not a benign disease. It is highly contagious and carries a high probability to cause complications, including death in some cases.
As the implications of not vaccinating begin to have real consequences, health officials have found that social media has been responsible for a lot of the misinformation going around about vaccinations. However, assorted platforms have now started to make changes to try to prevent this from happening. For instance, Pinterest has started to try to ban certain tags, URLS, and images from their site that warn against vaccination (Fast Company). GoFundMe has also started to take down campaigns that raise money to spread anti-vaxxer information (Independent). However, social media outlets have an uphill battle. For Pinterest, it’s not so easy as to just ban the tag “anti-vaccine” and be on their way. They have to find the right key terms to ban and make sure that information does not get leaked through. For instance, Pinterest might be able to easily ban someone sharing content from an anti-vaxxer website, but they can’t always filter Facebook links correctly.
Vaccinations are an important invention in public health and disease prevention, but due to the rise of misinformation regarding vaccinations, more parents are opting out of vaccinating their children. It makes sense that a parent would want the best for their kid, so if one is completely convinced that their child will be hurt due to vaccinations, then it makes sense that they would refuse vaccinations (even though in reality they are inadvertently doing a disservice to both their child’s and others’ health). Social media outlets have now tried to respond to this misinformation, but they are having a hard time making a foolproof solution. While it’s not completely perfect, it’s definitely a good step in the right direction to try to combat the promotion of misinformation, but time will tell if it will be effective.