Facebook challenged over spread of anti-vaccine content in measles-stricken Samoa

Doug Hendrie

11/12/2019 4:23:43 PM

Immunology experts are questioning the role social media has played in spreading anti-vaccine messages during the lethal Samoan outbreak.

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Facebook said it will crack down on anti-vaccine content by preventing promotion through ads or recommendations, but stopped short of taking it down entirely.

‘There have always been problems with misinformation, but social media turns a myth that might have spread amongst a few people into one spread around thousands.’
That is Associate Professor Nikki Turner, Director of the Immunisation Advisory Centre in New Zealand, talking to newsGP about her belief that the Samoan crisis is a sign social media needs to tackle dangerous misinformation.
‘The response has to be how to support these social media channels to be more responsible and not just allow totally wrong misinformation to circulate and create a lot more fear and make a difficult situation worse,’ she said.
Such observations come as the Samoan Government moved to arrest its most prominent anti-vaxxer Edwin Tamasese, who spread his messages through Facebook, and have banned him from posting.
In March, social media giant Facebook vowed to crack down on anti-vaccine content by preventing promotion through advertisements or recommendations, and to downgrade the messages in its news feed algorithms.
But Facebook stopped short of taking down anti-vaccination content entirely, while some ads have slipped through.  
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg recently told the US Congress that his company would not prevent people from posting anti-vaccine content or joining groups.
Scrutiny of Facebook’s role enabling the spreading of misinformation has increased this year, following measles outbreaks in the US.  
The issue is particularly acute in smaller nations like Samoa, where the social media giant has taken an outsized role in information ecosystems.
New Zealand vaccinologist Dr Helen Petousis-Harris told newsGP that social media has been a ‘key method of dissemination of misinformation’ in Samoa.
A media consultant based in the Pacific told newsGP Facebook has huge take-up in the region, where communication has long been a challenge.
‘Facebook – unknown a decade ago – now connects millions of Pacific people instantaneously, cheaply, and with no editorial gate-keepers,’ the consultant, who did not want to be named due to his position, said.
‘The rise of Facebook in the Pacific puts conspiracy theorists such as anti-vaxxers in a much stronger position than they were previously. There are no editorial processes to stop them from lying about scientific research, or medical emergencies happening in the Pacific.
‘They can spread their message to the public at low cost, using images of children with measles to provoke an emotional response.
‘Low public knowledge about vaccinations, as well as the misuse by anti-vaxxers of stories such as the two Samoan infants who died in July 2018 from an improperly administered vaccine, make for a fertile ground for anti-vaccine messaging.
‘These messages spread from one country to another in the Pacific, just like we fear the measles will.’

After a major vaccination drive, Samoa’s coverage rates are now at 91%. (Image: AAP)

Pacific journalists last year raised concerns around the rise of misinformation and fake news on social media.
The Samoan outbreak has now claimed 71 lives – almost all children under the age of four – prompting the nation’s government to slam anti-vaccination advocates for slowing down their response to the crisis.
Samoan Communication Minister Afamasaga Lepuiai Rico Tupa said anti-vaccination messages have gotten through to families.
‘What we say to [anti-vaccination advocates] is, “Don't be in the way of government. Don't be contributing to the deaths and the numbers rising”,’ he told New Zealand’s 1 News Now.
Journalist Association of Western Samoa President Rudy Bartley confirmed to newsGP that anti-vaccination advocates have been using Facebook to spread messages against immunisation.
‘We have a lot of anti-vaxx people. Because of that, parents didn’t take their kids to be vaccinated,’ he said. ‘We can’t say there’s a direct link, but these are contributing factors.
‘The power of social media, people think they can get away with it. But Samoa is waking up to the fact that people need to be accountable for what they say and publish.
‘Journalists have a code of practice, but what about the public? There’s misinformation and people are not accountable to anyone.’
Mr Bartley said the plunging immunisation rates in Samoa – which fell as low as 31% for measles last year – are also linked to the tragic deaths of two infants after nurses used a muscle relaxant instead of water to administer their measles vaccine.
The Samoan Government suspended its entire vaccination program for nine months in the wake of the scandal, which led to the jailing of the nurses. That suspension also contributed to the low coverage.
The United Nations has said a lack of access to immunisations and public education campaigns set the scene for the epidemic, undercutting the Samoan Government’s push to blame anti-vaccination advocates.
Vaccine-hesitancy expert Professor Julie Leask has previously told newsGP anti-vaccination advocates are only partly to blame, with the slow government response and suspension of the immunisation program also implicated.
The questions regarding the role of Facebook have intensified in the wake of the recent arrest of Samoan coconut farmer and traditional healer Edwin Tamasese for allegedly inflammatory social media comments.
Mr Tamasese, who has called on the public not to be immunised, was charged with incitement against the government’s mandatory vaccination order.
He had reportedly posted ‘I’ll be here to mop up your mess enjoy your killing spree’ during the two-day vaccination blitz last week.
Mr Tamasese has been released on bail but is not allowed to post anything to his more than 5000 followers on Facebook.
His last post stated that the vaccination drive was ‘The greatest crime against our people by our own people’ and called for people to use vitamins instead.
Ironically, Mr Tamasese has admitted his own children have been vaccinated against measles.
Mr Tamasese has been backed by Samoan–Australian influencer and vaccine sceptic Taylor Winterstein, who has praised him publicly.
The highly contagious virus has swept through the island nation of 200,000. After a major vaccination drive, coverage rates are now at 91%.
Australian doctors has described the scope of the outbreak as beyond their imagining and akin to a war zone.
Hopes the death rate might begin to decline have been challenged by virologist Chris Von Csefalvay, who has cautioned that it may be a long road.   

Samoan Observer journalist Sapeer Mayron told newsGP that anti-vaccination advocates have been particularly vocal over the last two years, with Facebook a major conduit.  
‘Facebook is a huge part of how people get their information [in Samoa]. People share a great deal on Facebook,’ she said. ‘Like in any country, there is absolutely an issue of misinformation in Samoa’s social media sphere.  
‘The measles epidemic is a tragic hotbed of misinformation as parents are becoming desperate and will try anything.
‘Facebook has been a platform for people to promote their own “cures” and “treatments” of measles, and families have posted “testimonies” and photos of their children getting better on Facebook, too.’
A New Zealand-based pro-vaccination advocate told newsGP that Facebook is the ‘prime weapon’ for anti-vaccination advocates.
‘Despite moves by Facebook to reduce exposure to the public by ranking down search results or tagging vaccine pages, anti-vaccine content is still overflowing,’ he said.  
Mia Garlick, Facebook’s director of policy in Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific described the measles epidemic as ‘devastating.’ She told newsGP that if any verifiable vaccine hoaxes appear on Facebook or Instagram, ‘we will take action against them’.
‘Our teams are proactively scanning for any health-related misinformation and are taking action to prevent its spread on our platforms,’ she said.
‘We’re providing information from the World Health Organization about vaccines to people in Samoa and around the world on Facebook and Instagram.’
Facebook is understood to be training a machine-learning artificial intelligence able to find anti-vaccination content.
The global resurgence of the measles virus this year has led to thousands of deaths in nations like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines.

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