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Facebook bans anti-vaccination advertisements, doesn’t say anything about taking down health misinformation

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Facebook will not show any advertisements that “discourage” getting vaccinated, the tech giant announced on Tuesday. The company said its decision has come in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and concomitant misinformation that can “harm public health efforts”. The company, however, didn’t say anything about taking down posts by regular users hat spread rumours about vaccines and other anti-vax conspiracies.

There is yet another caveat in Facebook’s announcement — ads that call for or against legislation or government policies around vaccines, including for COVID-19, will still be allowed on the platform. “We’ll continue to require anyone running these ads to get authorized and include a ‘Paid for by’ label so people can see who is behind them,” the company said. Facebook said that it regularly “refine[s]” its approach to ads around social issues, indicating that this policy might change in the future.

In the blog post, Facebook said that it already doesn’t allow ads with vaccine hoaxes that have been identified as such by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Now, if an ad explicitly discourages someone from getting a vaccine we’ll reject it, Enforcement will begin over the next few days,” it said. It remains to be seen how the company would enforce this policy on US President Donald Trump whose posts about COVID-19 have often contradicted CDC’s advice.

Meanwhile, the company also announced that it will work with WHO and UNICEF on public health messaging campaigns to increase immunisation rates.

  • Will analyse conversations on vaccines: Facebook’s Insights for Impact (part of its Data for Good Program) will work with UNICEF and other nonprofits to “share aggregated insights” from public posts on “how people are talking about vaccines”. Facebook will essentially gauge the mood and attitude of the public towards vaccines. The company said this information will help nonprofits build “public trust” in vaccines.

Health infodemic on Facebook

Facebook’s latest announcement about anti-vax ads doesn’t address the massive problem of health misinformation on its platform, a problem that has only grown larger during the COVID-19 pandemic. Activist group Avaaz, in a report released in August, had noted how posts spreading health misinformation attracted 3.8 billion views on Facebook, peaking during the pandemic. A ban on just anti-vax ads will do little to address this infodemic.

Avaaz’s report noted that Facebook is “failing to keep people safe and informed during the pandemic”. For instance, it found that the top 10 websites that spread health misinformation attracted four times as many views on Facebook as did content from the 10 leading health institutions in the world such as WHO and CDC.

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Avaaz researchers said that Facebook’s algorithm was helping boost content from misinformation spreading networks. Much of misinformation content, through categorically fact-checked as “false”, was able to evade Facebook’s content moderation by being republished, or translated into other languages. One particular conspiracy about a global “vaccine agenda” supposedly perpetrated by Microsoft founder Bill Gates accumulated over 8.4 million views over multiple posts.

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