The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Anti-vaxxers put us all at risk. Facebook and Twitter must ban them.

Jack Dorsey, left, and Mark Zuckerberg. (Andrew Harrer/Source: Bloomberg)

Letitia James is the attorney general of New York. William Tong is the attorney general of Connecticut.

President Biden has announced that every adult in the nation will be eligible for the covid-19 vaccine as of April 19. The availability of safe and effective vaccines should mark the end of the pandemic, and the start of our recovery.

But vaccine availability means nothing without vaccine acceptance. Anti-vaccine disinformation that continues to be disseminated unchecked on social media threatens to prolong our recovery and poses a grave threat to the health and safety of millions of Americans.

Facebook and Twitter have instituted a number of policies that have helped to slow the spread of dangerous vaccine disinformation on their platforms, yet these policies have been inadequately and inconsistently applied. The solution is not complicated. It’s time for Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to turn off this toxic tap and completely remove the small handful of individuals spreading this fraudulent misinformation.

Social media researchers have found that 12 individuals and their related organizations are responsible for a full 65 percent of anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter. We’ve found that these individuals and groups have repeatedly violated Facebook, Instagram and Twitter’s terms of service, and they must be removed from the platforms.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

This small group of “anti-vaxxers” — most with no medical expertise and, in some cases, motivated by personal financial interests — are putting us all at risk. They have used their social media accounts, as well as other public platforms they have access to, to promote wholly unfounded pseudoscience and wild conspiracy theories regarding the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. Some of these individuals have also used their platforms to undermine the reality of the pandemic in its entirety, have promoted fake and unproven cures, and have attacked common-sense, widely accepted public health measures, including mask-wearing and testing.

In some cases, those spreading vaccine disinformation are also spreading other dangerous, debunked political conspiracies, like QAnon.

According to a recent report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, anti-vaccine accounts have reached more than 59 million followers as of last year. Even worse, anti-vaxxers are using social media platforms to target people of color, and Black Americans specifically — communities suffering disproportionately from the virus, and whose rates of vaccination are already lagging.

Given anti-vaxxers’ reliance on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the men and women who run these companies have a unique responsibility and opportunity to act. Yet Facebook has failed to consistently apply misinformation labels and pop-ups on anti-vaccine pages. Instead, at the same time, Facebook has mistakenly flagged pro-vaccine pages and content in ways that have undermined public education efforts. The company has allowed anti-vaxxers to exploit loopholes and evade detection through streaming tools, such as Facebook and Instagram Live, as well as through other sites, that continue to promote disinformation. That’s why, just last month, our offices, along with 10 additional attorneys general from around the nation, sent letters to the Facebook and Twitter CEOs, urging both to immediately and fully enforce company guidelines against vaccine misinformation. Neither has responded.

Let us be clear — nothing is wrong with asking questions and researching vaccine effectiveness and safety. We recognize that some people are skeptical and fearful, particularly Black Americans, who know too well the racist history of vaccine experimentation in this country, as well as have experienced, firsthand, the many existing racial disparities in our health-care system.

We urge those with questions and concerns to seek out legitimate medical experts, including their own doctors, and official sources, such as local departments of public health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. We are not in any way looking to limit the ability of individuals to ask these important questions, but the small handful of people we’re talking about are simply promoting dangerous lies that do nothing to aid people in their legitimate search for information. The individuals spreading this misinformation have long pushed vaccine conspiracies.

As the chief law enforcement officers of our states, we can say that there is no First Amendment right to spread disinformation on social media. Twitter and Facebook have an obligation to enforce guidelines for acceptable conduct on their own platforms. In fact, there are additional state-level enforcement mechanisms against false and deceptive marketing, which might apply to those hawking fraudulent “cures” and scam preventive treatments. We are watching this closely, and attorneys general, from both sides of the aisle, have already taken legal steps, to stop those selling products, toothpastes, dietary supplements, creams and a number of other products with no scientific evidence supporting their ability to fight back against covid-19.

As attorneys general, the safety and well-being of the families in our states are our top priority. Facebook and Twitter have an obligation and an opportunity to take strong, swift action now to save lives and hasten our recovery.

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Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant. Here’s some guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

Variants: Instead of a single new Greek letter variant, a group of immune-evading omicron spinoffs are popping up all over the world. Any dominant variant will likely knock out monoclonal antibodies, targeted drugs that can be used as a treatment or to protect immunocompromised people.

Tripledemic: Hospitals are overwhelmed by a combination of respiratory illnesses, staffing shortages and nursing home closures. And experts believe the problem will deteriorate further in coming months. Here’s how to tell the difference between RSV, the flu and covid-19.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

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