Experts call on Facebook to halt anti-vaccine conspiracy groups

13 Feb 2019

Doctor administering a vaccine. Image: © terovesalainen/

Facebook is a hotbed of anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories, according to a major investigative report.

Over the last number of years, the growing movement against vaccinations has gathered pace, with social media aiding the spread of fraudulent claims about the effects of vaccinations on human health.

WHO says reluctance to vaccinate is a major danger

The movement has become so large that the World Health Organization (WHO) has cited ‘vaccine hesitancy’ as one of the top 10 risks to human health in 2019.

According to WHO, the reasons for choosing not to vaccinate are complex and include a variety of factors such as complacency, inconvenience in accessing vaccines and lack of confidence.

Facebook hosting anti-vaxxer content

A report published in The Guardian on 12 February has uncovered numerous Facebook groups run by so-called ‘anti-vaxxers’, where members need to be approved before they are permitted to join.

This allows misinformation about vaccines to spread without anyone countering it. One group, Stop Mandatory Vaccination, has more than 150,000 members. Another group claims that large doses of Vitamin C can help to ‘heal’ people from vaccine damage, despite vaccines being safe.

The Guardian report notes that health experts are imploring Facebook to do more to counter the proliferation of such views in an unchallenged manner within closed groups.

Dr Wendy Sue Swanson, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said: “Facebook should prioritise dealing with the threat to human health when falsehoods and misinformation are shared. This isn’t just self-harm, it’s community harm.” Swanson has already raised her concerns with Facebook executives.

Accepting advertising payments

The Guardian also found evidence that Facebook has accepted thousands of advertising dollars from groups that target parents with false, scaremongering ads meant to erode trust in vaccines. When asked to comment, the company did not respond.

While Facebook has been investing in tackling misinformation on its platform, this has generally centred on false news relating to politics and issues of race and immigration. This investigation shows that the spread of false stories about healthcare may be just as prevalent.

Anti-vaccine movement causing outbreaks

The governor of Washington, Jay Inslee, imposed a state of emergency across the entire state after a measles outbreak saw 48 people contract the disease. Most of the people were under 10 and not vaccinated.

In Clark County, Washington, demand for measles vaccines jumped 500pc last month. According to Ars Technica, the area is known as a hotbed for anti-vaxxers and its population is below the 92-94pc range experts consider the threshold to stop disease spreading.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US, there are around 100,000 children under two who have received no vaccinations. This is a staggering fourfold increase on 2001 figures.

Social media can also offer information to curious people seeking scientific data about vaccines. An Ohio teenager, Ethan Lindenberger, recently asked Reddit if he could have vaccines without the consent of this parents, as his mother would not give him permission.

He was told by Redditors to wait until the age of 18 and has now obtained five vaccinations so far. He told the BBC: “If I get whooping cough I may be able to handle it because I’m older and I have a good immune system, but who’s to say I don’t cough on my two-year-old sister?”

Ellen Tannam was a journalist with Silicon Republic, covering all manner of business and tech subjects