As measles cases continue to grow in Canada and the US, experts urge social media platforms to ban anti-vaccination posts, saying that public health risks created by disinformation outweigh the right to freedom of speech.
Industrial giants such as Facebook and Twitter have recently announced measures to try to direct consumers to science-based information about vaccines, but both have said they will not go as far as blocking and removing anti-vaccination material.
"I think this is one of the biggest issues we are currently facing in this information age: Where is the border between freedom of speech and public protection?" said Jonathan Jari, a biological scientist at the McGill University Science and Society Center, a center dedicated to helping the audience to separate facts from fiction on various scientific and health topics.
"People are misled by heavily malicious disinformation, and I think that in this case perhaps the public good outweighs the right of people to scream" Fire! ". in a theater where there is no fire.
"There is no real contradiction"
Vaccination is one of the 10 greatest threats to global health, according to the World Health Organization. Disinformation that claims that vaccines are not safe or cause "vaccine injuries" such as autism (a theory presented in an exploratory article more than 20 years ago, which was then debunked and withdrawn) frightens some parents and fuels hesitate to be immunized.
On Tuesday, the head of Gavi, a global alliance committed to boosting immunization, urged social media companies to remove posts containing incorrect information about vaccines, saying that the distribution of such content "kills people."
"We have to think of it as a disease," Dr. Seth Berkley, Executive Director of Gavi said in Geneva. "It spreads at the speed of light, literally."
Both the Canadian Public Health Agency and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have highlighted the importance of combating this disinformation as a way to halt the current increase in measles, a high infectious disease preventable with a vaccine that was declared to be eliminated in Canada in 1998 and in the US in 2000.
Although there may be side effects of vaccines – usually a sore arm or low temperature – they are temporary and harmless. The risk of serious reactions, including anaphylaxis, is less than one in one million, according to the Canadian Public Health Agency, and may be managed by the health care provider who administers the vaccine.
We do not feel like arbitrators of the truth.– Michele Austin, Twitter Canada
The fact that disinformation causes some parents to fear to vaccinate their children poses a threat to public health that is serious enough to overcome freedom of speech on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
"There are issues where the debate is healthy, where there are people who in good faith … want to debate the evidence because it is not clear where the consensus is and that is quite good – that's the way science moves," he said .
"But in case of vaccination … there is no real contradiction." Science is stable.
Efforts are "late," says the expert
Twitter Canada recently launched an initiative called #KnowTheFacts, which promoted it as a way to combat the misinformation of vaccines by opening evidence-based resources by the Canadian Public Health Agency.
When a user searches on Twitter for vaccination or immunization information, a message called "Fact Finding" appears on the screen, with a message below: "Information and resources on vaccines and immunizations can be found at the Agency for Public Health of Canada. . "Then, users can click on a blue button that says" I'm reaching ", which links to a vaccination and immunization information page on the Canadian government website.
In an email to CBC News, a spokeswoman for the Canadian Public Health Agency confirmed that he had provided information on the Notification Service messages but did not provide any funding for the development or deployment of the service.
Twitter's effort is "a little late to the extent that anti-vaccination and vaccine fluctuations are spreading and becoming more and more popular online," says Fukuki Kurasawa, director of the Global Digital Citizenship Lab at York University in Toronto.
Other social media platforms, including Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest, have already announced measures to counteract the misinformation of vaccines. Pinterest is the only platform that has reached the blocking and banning of anti-vaccination content. As a result of a change last year, if someone searches for a term like an anti-vaccine, there is a message saying there is no "Pins" for that search, a company spokesman said.
Kurasawa welcomed the fact that Twitter helped public health authorities but said his approach "does not have to be far enough."
Users can easily ignore the #KnowTheFacts notification. And the tweets and hashtags of those who send anti-vaccination messages still appear as often as they did before.
"I think Twitter is caught in some kind of commitment," he said. "He wants to keep and increase his customer base so he does not really want to ban people or consumers who are distributing such types of anti-vaccination disinformation messages.
"[But] I think this really should be a ban on people who repeatedly spread such fake messages and this kind of false information online. "
Not "arbitrators of truth," says Twitter
Both Twitter and Facebook told CBC News that they do not intend to block posts against vaccination, nor do they intend to ban known individuals or groups distributing anti-vaccination messages on their platforms.
"We do not feel like arbitrators of the truth," said Michel Austin, head of government and public policy at Twitter Canada. "We are just trying to help consumers find reliable public information about vaccines if they choose to look for it."
Twitter users like to engage in a public conversation in real time, Austin said. She suggested these conversations, not the censorship of content, may be "what is really important for changing one's mind [about vaccination]. "
Already in March, Facebook announced that it will deal with disinformation of vaccines by "reducing its spread and providing people with authoritative information on the subject."
Part of the strategy, he said, is "to reduce the ranking of groups and pages that distribute disinformation about vaccinations in News Feed and Search" – which means they should not appear so often or prominently.
But more than two months after this statement, a Facebook search for "vaccination" conducted by CBC News led to results headed by a group called "STOP VACCINATION !!! STOP INJURY AND KILLING CHILDREN !!!"
When CBC News asked Facebook for a comment, the company said in an email that its approach was to counteract the disinformation of vaccines with accurate information provided by authoritative health authorities, including the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention instead of to remove opinions,
She also said that giving opinions on vaccines would not make Facebook take action against these users.
"Facebook empowers people to decide for themselves what to read, trust and share by informing them of more context, promoting news literacy, and collaborating with academics and other organizations to facilitate talks on challenging and sensitive issues,
But Jonathan Jari, a scientist at McGill University, said Facebook has banned high-ranking personalities, such as conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, citing violations of the company's hate speech policy.
"Perhaps we should do the same thing with … the biggest figures in the anti-vaccination movement, simply because the disinformation they insist on is to have many, very concrete, dangerous and deadly consequences for the public," said Jarry.