YouTube said Friday that it would pull advertising from videos that espouse anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, according to BuzzFeed. The action contributes to a growing trend of social media companies taking action to combat the spread of vaccine misinformation online.
Social media companies, including Facebook and YouTube, have recently been facing pressure to get better at this, following inquiries from media and calls from lawmakers. The World Health Organization recently categorized “vaccine hesitancy” as one of 2019’s top threats to global health.
The US is experiencing a measles outbreak — a previously near-eradicated disease — that’s affecting unvaccinated children. Social media has played a significant role in proliferating the false conspiracy that vaccines can cause autism.
A report from BuzzFeed caused companies to pull their advertising from anti-vaccination videos on YouTube. Now, YouTube says that anti-vaccination videos constitute “dangerous and harmful” content, which disqualify it for advertising according to YouTube’s policies. So videos spreading anti-vaccination information won’t be able to make money.
BuzzFeed also found that the Up Next panel for genuine health videos about vaccines contained vaccination conspiracy theory videos. That is, YouTube was actually serving anti-vaxxer information alongside legitimate health information. YouTube now says that it is making changes to its algorithm to stop this practice. It has also begun to include an excerpt from the Wikipedia page about “vaccine hesitancy” under videos spreading false vaccine information.
Facebook made a similar announcement regarding video recommendations on Feb. 14. That was after an extensive report from The Guardian about how anti-vaccination conspiracy theories spread in private groups. Rep. Adam Schiff specifically called out Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) to address anti-vaccination information on their platforms.
Pinterest has actually taken the most definitive action on anti-vaccination content moderation to date. On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pinterest had essentially broken search results for “vaccines”; If someone searched for vaccines on Pinterest, the platform simply wouldn’t deliver results.
The push to stop the spread of anti-vaccination content comes amidst social media companies’ large efforts to fight misinformation of all types, but particularly regarding politics and social issues. Anti-vaxxer misinformation has not taken center stage in this debate until recently. But with the clear threat to public health that it poses, platforms are beginning to take action.
There’s more to be done in this public health battle, but changing algorithmic recommendations, and cutting off funding sources for these viral videos is a start.