Conspiracy theorists and promoters of misinformation have had a harder time spreading falsehoods on Facebook in recent weeks.
The social media company took the fight to another group Tuesday: anti-vaxxers. However, its new policy against anti-vaccination rhetoric is still lacking.
Facebook just announced it would now ban ads meant to “discourage” people from getting vaccinated. This is a good step, as these calls are usually steeped in conspiratorial beliefs. Vaccines keep people — as well as society as a whole — safe from infectious viruses.
However, the new policy only prohibits broad ads meant to discourage vaccinations as a whole.
“Ads that advocate for or against legislation or government policies around vaccines — including a COVID-19 vaccine — are still allowed,” according to the company’s statement. Facebook says any groups running these types of ad campaigns would need pre-authorization. Their posts will be accompanied by a “Paid for by” label so users can know who is behind them.
There are good reasons for these types of ads. For example, as a coronavirus vaccine becomes politicized during the campaign season, there are some worries that the government could rush a vaccine before the election. But it does potentially allow anti-vaxxers to frame their arguments in a way that could bypass Facebook’s policies.
The additional step of getting authorized to run political ads isn’t much of an obstacle for conspiracy theorists either. There are conspiracy theorists and QAnon believers who are running for elected office right now running political ads on Facebook.
Facebook’s statement says it does “regularly refine” its approach to these issues and may expand on enforcement in the future.
“We applaud Facebook for finally taking this action," said Dr. Joe Smyser, chief executive officer of the nonprofit health group The Public Good Projects, in a statement. "Next we hope to see a more effective means of identifying and halting the spread of organic misinformation. Ads are important, but they’re not the most important in terms of how misinformation spreads."
Of course, as Dr. Smyser mentions, anti-vaxxers are still able to post non-paid content on their pages and accounts. This new policy only deals with paid advertising. Facebook does have policies in place to demote anti-vaccination content and make it harder to find on the platform, but it's still allowed to spread. The company follows a similar approach with anti-vaccination content on Instagram as well.
Other health policies on Facebook
The company’s statement also features other health-related announcements. Facebook says it will work to promote global health organizations, like WHO and UNICEF, on education campaigns about vaccines. The social media platform will also help provide its users with information on where and how to get a flu shot.
Facebook has taken some big steps recently to combat misinformation. It recently banned pages and groups pushing the QAnon conspiracy theory and, on Monday, the social network took the step of banning Holocaust denial from its platform as well.
While the new anti-vaccine measures are steps in the right direction, they still leave room for anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists to game the system. This is especially concerning in the midst of a pandemic.
"The amount of vaccine-related misinformation has more than doubled since the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of which is driven by readily identifiable accounts that rely on shares and page suggestions," said Dr. Smyser. "Misinformation has real-world outcomes, like last year’s measles outbreaks."
And Facebook knows the stakes. Back in August, the company said that it found more than a 100 million pieces of coronavirus misinformation on its platform.