A new study combed through advertising data provided by social media giant Facebook, finding that the vast majority of ads spreading misinformation about vaccines were bought by just two organizations.
Follow the money
According to David Broniatowski, a professor of engineering at George Washington University and one of the lead authors of the study, the World Mercury Project and Stop Mandatory Vaccinations were together responsible for 54% of the anti-vaccine ads on Facebook.
World Mercury Project is chaired by Robert F Kennedy Jr., the son of former US attorney general Bobby Kennedy. In 2017, the foundation raised $68,100 via an Indigogo campaign to fund “grassroot action to educate Congress and remove mercury from our medicine.”
Stop Mandatory Vaccinations is led by Larry Cook, who relies on crowd-funding platforms to raise money to fund vaccine hesitancy campaigns — as well as his personal expenses. In March 2019, GoFundMe banned Cook’s fundraisers. Recently, YouTub demonetized Cook’s videos.
“The average person might think that this anti-vaccine movement is a grassroots effort led by parents, but what we see on Facebook is that there are a handful of well-connected, powerful people who are responsible for the majority of advertisements. These buyers are more organized than people think,” said Amelia Jamison, a faculty research assistant in the Maryland Center for Health Equity, and the study’s first author.
After public pressure following the misinformation and data manipulation scandal that influenced the Brexit referendum and 2016 US presidential elections, Facebook disclosed part of its advertising archive. While the database isn’t nearly as comprehensive and transparent as it should be, researchers and activists have since used it to study all sorts of trends and expose nefarious advertisers.
According to the study, which was published in the journal Vaccine, the two groups deliberately targeted vulnerable groups who are more likely to respond positively to vaccine hesitancy propaganda. For instance, Stop Mandatory Vaccination ads appeared to parents and young children.
The researchers analyzed more than 500 ads posted between December 2018 and February 2019. Of the ads, 163 were pro-vaccine and 145 were anti-vaccine. Although pro-vaccination ads were paid for by 83 unique organizations, 54% of the anti-vaccine posts came from just two buyers — Cook and Kennedy.
One of the typical ads run by Stop Mandatory Vaccinations alleged that “Healthy 14 week old infant gets 8 vaccines and dies within 24 h (sic)”.
Suffice to say, such advertising is blatantly false. Study after study has shown that vaccines do not cause autism and any potential ill effects are vastly compensated by their protective effect against diseases.
According to a 2016 report issued by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), vaccination will prevent about 322 million illnesses among children born between 1994 and 2013. Meanwhile, vaccine hesitancy has led to the return of dangerous outbreaks, such as measles and whooping cough, which have seen an increased incidence of up to 30% in cases globally. The World Health Organization identified vaccine hesitancy as one of the most significant dangers to global health in 2019.
What’s particularly worrisome is that Facebook’s new ad policies have led to the categorization of ads about vaccines as “political”. This has led the platform to automatically reject many pro-vaccine messages. Hospitals and other pro-vaccine groups then have to wait for a human to manually review their ads, which is a time-consuming process.
In one recent example, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, the state’s official health department, bought 14 ads to promote a statewide program providing free pediatric vaccinations — and Facebook removed all of them.
Vaccine hesitancy groups are able to prevent having their ads flagged because they have more experience and know to game Facebook’s algorithm by avoiding certain keywords. For instance, anti-vaccine campaigns are framed around themes like “freedom” or “choice”, which elude Facebook’s rules.
“By accepting the framing of vaccine opponents — that vaccination is a political topic, rather than one on which there is widespread public agreement and scientific consensus — Facebook perpetuates the false idea that there is even a debate to be had,” said Broniatowski. “This leads to increased vaccine hesitancy, and ultimately, more epidemics.”
“Worse, these policies actually penalize pro-vaccine content since Facebook requires disclosure of funding sources for ‘political’ ads, but vaccine proponents rarely think of themselves as political. Additionally, vaccine opponents are more organized and more able to make sure that their ads meet these requirements.”
In the future, the researchers will continue to explore how anti-vaccine campaigns on social media spread and how they might impact public health.
“While everyone knows that Facebook can be used to spread misinformation, few people realize the control that advertisers have to target their message,” said Mark Dredze, a John C. Malone associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins. “For a few thousand dollars, a small number of anti-vaccine groups can micro-target their message, exploiting vulnerabilities in the health of the public.”