Tech companies, facing intense scrutiny for the spread of misinformation about the safety of vaccinations on their platforms, on Wednesday received a letter from a leading medical professional organization imploring them to do more to address the issue.
The letter, from the professional group the American Medical Association (AMA), begged executives like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai to be transparent about how they will “ensure that users have access to accurate, timely, scientifically sound information” about vaccine safety.
“As physicians, we are concerned that the proliferation of this type of health-related misinformation will undermine sound science, further decrease vaccinations, and persuade people to make medical decisions that could spark the spread of easily preventable diseases,” the letter from AMA president and CEO James Madara reads.
Madara’s letter was also addressed to executives at Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube.
The letter comes amid ongoing legislative and public pressure on tech companies to rid their platforms of misinformation about vaccination safety. Health officials agree that vaccines are safe and necessary for public health of communities, but some parents are opting out of vaccinating their children, putting their children and their communities at risk. The World Health Organization recently declared that “vaccination hesitancy,” driven by false information about the safety of vaccines, “threatens to reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.”
As of press time, the Centers for Disease Control has confirmed 228 cases of the measles in 12 states, and six confirmed outbreaks of the disease. Measles is a highly contagious disease that is preventable through vaccination, and had been declared eliminated by the United States in 2000.
“As evident from the measles outbreaks currently impacting communities in several states, when people decide not to be immunized as a matter of personal preference or misinformation, they put themselves and others at risk of disease,” Madara wrote. “That is why it is extremely important that people who are searching for information about vaccination have access to accurate, evidence-based information grounded in science.”
Some platforms have already taken steps to try to curb the issue. YouTube recently moved to demonetize anti-vaccination videos over brand safety concerns, BuzzFeed news reported in February. Last week, Facebook rolled out a series of updates intended to curb the amount of anti-vaccination information that surfaced in search results and was spread via targeted advertisements on both Facebook proper and Instagram.
On Tuesday, NBC reported that Amazon had removed books and films on its marketplace and Amazon Prime streaming service that contain false information about vaccines. Pinterest has taken even more aggressive steps to try to address false information about vaccines on the platform, banning boards from anti-vaccination groups and blacklisting a number of search terms related to vaccination conspiracy theories.
A quick review of some tech platforms on Wednesday, though, showed that vaccine misinformation was still widely available. An Adweek reporter conducting a search of “vaccines dangerous” via a private, signed-out session on Google on Wednesday found that the first result led to vaccine misinformation. The third search result redirected to the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), an anti-vaccination group that is known for promoting misinformation about vaccine safety. The fifth, seventh and eighth search results also led to vaccine misinformation and conspiracies about vaccines, Adweek found.
On Facebook, searching “vaccine” and “vaccines dangerous” in the search bar and selecting groups and pages tab both led to a number of closed groups promoting the idea that vaccines are unsafe. The first page that surfaced in a search for “vaccine” directed a Facebook user to NVIC.
On Instagram, another Adweek reporter found that even typing in the word “vaccine” in the search bar resulted in the immediate surfacing of accounts that publish anti-vaccination misinformation, including the Instagram account belonging to NVIC.
On Amazon, beginning to type “vaccines d” in a signed-out search prompted Amazon to recommend “vaccines death” and “vaccines danger” in the search bar; searching the terms made Amazon recommend a number of anti-vaccination books claiming that vaccines are “dangerous,” “useless” and cause autism—all conspiracy theories not rooted in science. Searching “vaccines” resulted in the recommendation of books co-authored by prominent anti-vaccination activists who have suggested that vaccines cause autism.
Representatives for Amazon, Facebook and Instagram did not immediately respond to requests for comment. A Google spokesperson said that Google’s systems are designed to prioritize information from “authoritative sources” in search results and said certain information may be accompanied by fact-checking labels and “knowledge panels” from trusted sources, but said its systems are not perfect and are subject to regular evaluation.
Dr. Melissa Stockwell, an associate professor of population, family health and pediatrics at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, said educating parents on vaccines and vaccine safety can be a challenge when physicians see them infrequently and have to compete against digital misinformation.
“Parents want to do right by their children, but when there is a lot of misinformation out there, they don’t necessarily know what to trust and what not to trust,” Stockwell said in a recent interview with Adweek. “That’s when they can end up making decisions that can be harmful to their children.”
Stockwell is not a member of AMA, but is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which has also implored big tech to better tackle medical misinformation about vaccines.
The AMA and the AAP aren’t the only groups trying to pressure platforms to take a more aggressive approach. Legislators, including California Rep. Adam Schiff, are pressuring tech companies to provide more information about how they address medical misinformation.
Adweek found that searches of “vaccine” or “vaccines dangerous” didn’t lead to misinformation on all of the platforms. On YouTube, searches for “vaccines” and “vaccines dangerous” resulted in news videos about vaccine misinformation and its effects; on Pinterest, searching “vaccine” and “vaccines dangerous” returned nothing. On Twitter, searching “vaccines” surfaced hashtags like #VaccinesWork and #VaccinesSaveLives; searching “vaccines dangerous,” though, led to the surfacing of some conspiracy-adjacent posts suggesting that vaccines aren’t safe.
Stockwell said the most important thing platforms can do is surface correct information about vaccinations so it is easily found by parents seeking more information.
“The companies do have a role in this,” Stockwell said. “…They play a role, because vaccine misinformation can have deadly effects.”