By Tarik Johnson
A new study published in the science journal Vaccine found that Facebook increased the politicization of vaccines by labeling all vaccine-related content as an issue of “national importance”. This allowed a small set of anti-vaccine advertisement buyers to leverage Facebook’s new advertisement policy to reach targeted audiences.The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, the George Washington University and Johns Hopkins University who examined the link between Facebook advertising and the promotion of both pro and anti-vaccination messages. In 2018, Facebook introduced Ad Archive as a way to improve transparency in advertisements related to politics and “issues of national importance.” At that time vaccine related Facebook ads became publicly available. But after increasing measles outbreaks in the US and increasing scrutiny of Facebook’s ad targeting ability, Facebook announced steps to limit vaccine-related misinformation.
The researchers used the keyword ‘vaccine’, to search the Ad Archive on December 13, 2018 and February 22, 2019. After exporting data for 505 advertisements. The team found that “309 advertisements were included in analysis with 163 (53%) pro-vaccine advertisements and 145 (47%) anti-vaccine advertisements. Despite a similar number of advertisements, the median number of ads per buyer was significantly higher for anti-vaccine ads. First time buyers are less likely to complete disclosure information and risk ad removal. Thematically, anti-vaccine advertising messages are relatively uniform and emphasize vaccine harms (55%). In contrast, pro-vaccine advertisements come from a diverse set of buyers (83 unique) with varied goals including promoting vaccination (49%), vaccine related philanthropy (15%), and vaccine related policy (14%).”
The majority of Facebook ads spreading misinformation about vaccines are funded by two organizations the World Mercury Project and Stop Mandatory Vaccination. The World Mercury Project, which is also called Childrens Health Defense, is chaired by Robert F Kennedy Jr, son of the former US attorney general Bobby Kennedy. The for profit site Stop Mandatory Vaccination is led by Larry Cook, a self-proclaimed activist who raised money through gofundme to pay for the ads and for his own expenses. Cook was banned from GoFundMe in March of this year.
The researchers argued that framing vaccines as a political argument is unrealistic characterization of the scientific consensus and could negatively impact health issues by reducing vaccination rates.
“By accepting the framing of vaccine opponents – that vaccination is a political topic, rather than one on which there is widespread public agreement and scientific consensus – Facebook perpetuates the false idea that there is even a debate to be had,” said study principal investigator David Broniatowski, associate professor of engineering management and systems engineering at George Washington University.
“This leads to increased vaccine hesitancy, and ultimately, more epidemics. Worse, these policies actually penalise pro-vaccine content since Facebook requires disclosure of funding sources for ‘political’ ads, but vaccine proponents rarely think of themselves as political. Additionally, vaccine opponents are more organised and more able to make sure that their ads meet these requirements.”
Facebook’s micro-targeting algorithms have allowed anti-vaccine groups to hone in on people who might be susceptible to doubts about vaccines. In particular, women and parents of young children have been targeted by Stop Mandatory Vaccination, and Cook was even censured by the UK Advertising Standards Authority last year.
Emily Lowther, a spokesperson for the Minnesota Hospitals Association (MHA) told the Guardian “Unless you’re in the target audience you’re not going to see an ad, so it’s hard to know what other organizations might be running.” In October, the Daily Beast reported that the MHA had dozens of their pro-vaccination ads removed by Facebook. “It’s our understanding that auto-blocking software flagged these ads, since the text resembles when ads appear to be spreading vaccine misinformation,” said Lowther. After reuploading the ads, Lowther said that Facebook accepted the ads but only after human oversight had to overrule the algorithmic mistake.