After criticisms that it was allowing anti-vaccination misinformation to flourish and circulate on the platform, Facebook has announced it is taking steps to bury content from anti-vaxxers.

In a blog post by Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Vice-President Global Policy Management, the company said it is “working to tackle vaccine misinformation on Facebook by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic.”

The post goes on to outline a number of strategies Facebook will employ to this end, including dropping groups and pages that spread fake news about vaccinations down the search rankings and removing them from search box suggestions, banning ads that promote rhetoric from anti-vaxxers and excluding offending pages from Instagram Explore (Instagram is wholly owned by Facebook) and hashtag pages.

The social media platform also said it will remove campaigns characterised as hoaxes by authoritative organisations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Facebook had been under fire for not taking action on anti-vaccine content

Facebook had been increasingly criticised in recent times for providing a platform for anti-vaccine content. Congressman Adam Schiff had led the charge, writing a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg to forcefully suggest both Instagram and Facebook crack down on misinformation around vaccines.“Repetition of information, even if false, can often be mistaken for accuracy,” he wrote.

Schiff had also contacted Google’s Sundar Pichai to outline his concerns about anti-vaxxers posting content on YouTube. He referred to a report by Julia Carrie Wong in The Guardian which found that YouTube’s algorithm was also steering people to dangerous misinformation on vaccines.

While anti-vaccine material can still be found on Facebook, the concerted effort to bury it has been seen as the company’s most decisive step towards de-platforming conspiracy theorists to date. Facebook and Instagram have more than 2.3 billion active monthly users between them.

Other social media sites, such as Pinterest, which began taking action on the issue in 2016. More recently, that site prohibited the“promotion of false cures for terminal or chronic illnesses and anti-vaccination advice” and altered its own search engine to prevent content from known anti-vaxxers from showing up.

The decision to take action comes just after days after the publication of another comprehensive study which showed the efficacy and safety of vaccines and confirmed they are a vital component of public health. The study, which spanned the years 1999 to 2010, again proved the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine does not increase the risk of children getting autism.

WHO has warned against ‘vaccine hesitancy’

The story of Ethan Lindenberger, the teenaged son of an anti-vaxxer who got vaccinated of his own accord at the age of 18, has also been in the headlines. Lindenberger testified on the issue to Congress.

“For my mother, her love and affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress. And these sources, which spread misinformation, should be the primary concern of the American people,” Lindenberger told the hearing.

“My mother would turn to social media groups and not to factual sources like the (CDC). It is with love and respect that I disagree with my mom.”

Facebook’s commitment to limiting the influence of anti-vaxxers also follows a string of measles outbreaks in under-vaccinated areas. Italy, Japan and the Phillippines have also seen outbreaks among under-vaccinated pockets of the community.

The WHO has nominated vaccine hesitancy (defined as “the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines”) as one of the top threats to global health in 2019, alongside threats such as dengue fever and the Ebola virus.