Amazon confirmed this week that it, too, had taken action, pulling books from its online marketplace that tout bogus information about autism and vaccines.
Then came Instagram’s announcement.
And now GoFundMe is doing the same.
GoFundMe spokesman Bobby Whithorne said in a statement to the Daily Beast that “Campaigns raising money to promote misinformation about vaccines violate GoFundMe’s terms of service and will be removed from the platform.” He said the company is “conducting a thorough review and will remove any campaigns currently on the platform.”
But Whithorne told the news site that those crowdfunding campaigns are “extremely rare” and that, so far, the company has found fewer than 10 to remove.
Experts say companies, especially social media platforms, are being tasked with new and challenging responsibilities as they learn to navigate the line between doing business and playing the role of censor in an age when misleading claims about health and science can have a profound impact on public health. At the same time, some anti-vaccination advocates suggest the crackdowns violate First Amendment rights, limit alternative views and give Big Pharma an upper hand. (Larry Cook, a prominent advocate, did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Washington Post about the changes.)
Nevertheless, Facebook has announced it is banning certain content and ads containing misinformation about vaccines. Pinterest said it is blocking “polluted” search terms, memes and pins prompting anti-vaccine propaganda, and YouTube said it is banning anti-vaccination channels from running online advertisements, according to news reports. Instagram told the Hill this week that it plans to begin blocking hashtags connected to “known health-related misinformation including #vaccinescauseautism, #vaccinesarepoison, and #vaccinescauseids.”
Last week, James L. Madara, executive vice president and chief executive of the AMA, sent a letter to the top executives at Amazon, Facebook, Google, Pinterest, Twitter and YouTube, asking them for help.
Madara said doctors “are troubled by reports of anti-vaccine related messages and advertisements targeting parents searching for vaccine information on your platforms.”
“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,” he wrote. “With public health on the line and with social media serving as a leading source of information for the American people, we urge you to do your part to ensure that users have access to scientifically valid information on vaccinations, so they can make informed decisions about their families’ health.”
"We also urge you to make public your plans to ensure that users have access to accurate, timely, scientifically sound information on vaccines,” Madara said in the letter.
The anti-vaccine movement has been sustained, in part, from fraudulent research from 1998 that purported to show a link between autism and a preservative used in vaccines — despite the fact that it has been discredited and despite the fact that numerous other studies have provided conclusive evidence that vaccinations do not cause autism.
The controversial debate has found center stage on popular social media platforms, where anti-vaxxers have been spreading misinformation, and health-care professionals have been coming under fire for trying to combat it.
The Washington Post’s Lena H. Sun reported this week that “pediatricians and other practitioners are increasingly coming under digital attack from a global movement that spreads misinformation about vaccines.”
Online attacks against people who speak out in favor of vaccines have become increasingly common, clinicians and vaccine advocates say. Social media websites are the primary platform for the anti-vaccination movement’s misleading claims. Although anti-vaccine activists are a small minority, on social media they may appear to be the majority.
Art Caplan, a bioethics professor and head of the division of medical ethics at New York University School of Medicine, previously said that these companies cannot allow themselves to be “vehicles for misinformation contagion.”
“You can certainly post things that oppose vaccination — individuals can speak their minds. But when you have websites that are presenting false information, debunked information or, similarly, books that tout phony cures, I think there is a role for somebody in censorship,” said Caplan, who co-wrote a 2017 paper on “The overlooked dangers of anti-vaccination groups’ social media presence.” Caplan said it is important for companies to exclude such misinformation “because the power of social media, particularly in the vaccine space, is so strong that it’s leading to fear of vaccines, which is leading to epidemics, which is putting people at risk.”