Facebook finally bent earlier this year to public pressure to do something about the trash heap of anti-vaccine-related misinformation that’s managed to fester on its site, but not before anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists were able to exploit its tools to spread harmful and factually inaccurate information on the platform.
New research recently published in the peer-reviewed journal Vaccine indicates the extent to which just a small number of individuals exploited ads on Facebook to promote misinformation about vaccinations. Using Facebook’s Ad Archive tool, which the social media giant introduced in October of 2018 as a way to search ads purchased on the platform, researchers discovered that two primary players were behind a rash of anti-vaxxer advertising on Facebook earlier this year.
During the period between Dec. 13 and Feb. 22, researchers pulled data on 505 ads that included the word “vaccine.” Then, they broke them down into categories of either pro-vaccination or anti-vaccination and weeded out any other ads that weren’t relevant. Of the remaining 309 vaccine-related relevant ads that were left, the researchers identified 163 as pro-vaccine and 145 as anti-vaccine.
While 53 percent were pro-vaccine, the researchers found that those ads came from 83 unique buyers and with varying goals, be they related to philanthropy, policy, or education. By contrast, the researchers found that for the anti-vaccine ads, 54 percent were purchased by just two buyers. Those buyers were the World Mercury Project and an unidentified individual buying ads for the group Stop Mandatory Vaccination.
The paper did not name the individuals associated with these groups, but as the Guardian noted, both are connected to highly visible anti-vaxxer figures. Stop Mandatory Vaccination is run by Larry Cook, who the Daily Beast reported in February amassed tens of thousands of dollars in crowd-funded donations to fund his anti-vaxxer agenda and bankroll his personal finances. The other, World Mercury Project, is chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose own family has publicly slammed his conspiracy theories about vaccines.
Mark Dredze, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University and a lead author on the study, told Gizmodo by phone that one of the things he found surprising was that Facebook “has a platform that really gives advertisers a tremendous amount of power to target their ads to really specific people.”
“What we’re talking about here is a group that, if they’re successful, they are going to make more people sick,” Dredze said. “That is success. I know that’s not what they’re trying to do. But if they are successful, and people see these ads, more people will get sick. And it’s very disturbing to me that you have a Facebook platform that is as powerful as [the ad platform] is that can be used so easily by so few people for so little money to have such a large impact.”
Facebook announced in March that it would begin rejecting anti-vaccine ads on the platform and would disable ad accounts that abused its policy, but it’s clear that anti-vaxxers were able to exploit these tools long before Facebook was moved to do something about them. Reached for comment about the study’s findings, a spokesperson for Facebook told Gizmodo by email that the company tackles misinformation about vaccines on its platform “by reducing its distribution and connecting people with authoritative information from experts on the topic.”
“We partner with leading public health organizations, such as the World Health Organization, which has publicly identified vaccine hoaxes—if these hoaxes appear on Facebook, we will take action against them—including rejecting ads,” the spokesperson said. Still, Dredze said Facebook should be doing more to address the issue on its site, adding that the company needs to “decide what it’s going to allow and what it’s not going to allow in a broader sense.”
“They’ve been very careful because they don’t like banning content. And so they’ve said, OK, well, we’re going to ban this misinformation around vaccines. That’s not pulling it off. That’s not going far enough,” Dredze said. “They should ban ads from groups that are promoting any content, whether it’s in the ad or in the link in the destination link. They should ban those ads from the platform. I think that’s not an unreasonable expectation.”