As families come face to face with medical requirements every school year, the country is feeling the effects of a vaccine resistance movement that’s been decades in the making. In a climate of fake news and ever-growing misinformation that is spread online, it can be hard to decipher the false information from the truth. That’s why Facebook is taking a stand.
To counter the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation, the social media platform, which also owns Instagram, announced in September that educational pop-up windows will appear on the two mediums when users search for vaccine-related content, visit vaccine-related Facebook groups and pages, or tap a vaccine-related hashtag on Instagram.
“By responding to people searching for vaccines, this target approach can circumvent users stumbling upon misinformation,” says Katie Foss, a journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro. “Moreover, this approach reminds people of credible sources, as opposed to blogs filled with anecdotes presented as evidence.”
The push for the truth
U.S. users will get a pop-up window connecting them to vaccine information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), while users outside the United States will be linked with the World Health Organization (WHO).
“If people are already searching for vaccine information, they are more likely to be undecided than those who are not actively seeking information, due to being fixed in position,” Foss says. “Since social media has become part of the daily online ritual, it is a key path to reaching consumers. Pop-ups on social media fit into the platform, while encouraging a more in-depth knowledge base once routed to the CDC or WHO,” she adds.
Views on vaccines shared on social media can easily sway a person’s opinion, says Tamer Hadi, director of strategic technology at the New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene.
“The pop-ups are not stopping the spread of misinformation but certainly making it the first source of information you see is very important,” Hadi says. “More work needs to be done on eliminating automated, fake, robot accounts, which are created solely to amplify misinformation. However, there will always be individuals that have made up their mind on a topic and will continue to push their beliefs despite scientific information to the contrary.”
Education is key
One of the easiest ways to get the word out is referencing credible sources and health organizations like the CDC that highlight science-based facts and information on vaccines, says Peter Kirk, CEO of Sermo, a social network exclusively for doctors based in New York City.
“Education is key here. I believe the pop-ups will be effective by providing easy, real-time access to credible information while people are researching the topic and learning what is best for themselves and their loved ones,” he says. “Health professionals’ goal is to steer the conversation in the direction of medically accurate information and increase confidence in vaccines. The more accurate information we can funnel through social media, the better chance we have at bridging the vaccination information gap.”
Foss agrees, adding that to reach consumers, companies and other organizations have to be able to reach those searching for information. At the same time, by monitoring the abundance of false information, these groups can directly counter this information with its messages.
“Paired with the FB restrictions on anti-vax groups, the pop-up windows will be a significant step in guiding consumers to credible information,” she says. “Circulating positive stories about the importance of vaccination on social media sites would further strengthen these actions. We need a combination of careful guidance into quality information and pro-vaccine experiences to counter distorted messages.