Two months after Facebook pledged to fight vaccine misinformation on its platforms, and in the midst of a measles outbreak in New York City, Instagram is still serving up posts from anti-vaccination accounts and anti-vaccination hashtags to anyone searching for the word “vaccines.”
Instagram, which is owned by Facebook (FB), has said it’s working to reduce the distribution of misinformation about vaccines on the popular photo-sharing app. At a press event in New York on Tuesday, Instagram executives said vaccine misinformation is not eligible for recommendation to its Explore, hashtag and search pages. But discussion about vaccines as a general topic is still allowed and can be recommended in these places, they said.
An Instagram spokesperson added that its efforts are focused on vaccine misinformation, not the anti-vax movement. This means that Instagram wants to curtail false information about vaccines, but not ban people who identify as anti-vaxers or publish anti-vaccine posts.
Karina Newton, Instagram’s global head of public policy, said the company has blocked what she called hashtags with “straight up” vaccine misinformation, such as #VaccinesCauseAIDS. The company said it’s focused on removing “publicly identified verifiable vaccine hoaxes” identified by groups like the World Health Organization, like #VaccinesCauseAIDS.
But a review by CNN Business found that the hashtag #VaccinesKill was still up on the site and was a top result after anti-vax accounts. Posts with the hashtag were a mix of misinformation and content mocking anti-vaxers, though more than half of the top nine posts under the hashtag on Wednesday were anti-vax.
Asked by CNN Business why #VaccinesKill was acceptable when #VaccinesCauseAIDS was not, an Instagram spokesperson said there isn’t an officially debunked claim that vaccines kill.
“Vaccines are extremely safe. Serious adverse reactions are very, very rare. It’s very unfortunate that there would be such a hashtag because it’s going to scare people,” said Daniel Salmon, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety. “If you scare people, less people will get vaccinated and you’ll have outbreaks of things like measles which can kill children.”
Scientists have repeatedly and consistently debunked the most common anti-vax myth, the idea that there is a link between vaccinations and the development of autism in children. Reputable organizations like the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that vaccination for children is crucial to public health.
Still, anti-vax content continues to proliferate on Instagram, prompting some reporters at Tuesday’s event to ask Instagram executives why search results for “vaccine” under the app’s “Top” tab surfaced accounts like “Christians Against Vaccines” and “Vaccinetruth,” both of which post anti-vax content.
“It’s an area we’re iterating on right now,” said Yoav Shapira, engineering manager of Instagram’s well-being team, who was at Tuesday’s presentation.
An Instagram spokesperson would not elaborate on why anti-vax accounts appear high up in search results, but said the company is working to find solutions for search results and hashtags which contain a high percentage of vaccine misinformation.
“They’re doing the minimum to give the optics of some level of social corporate responsibility, without wanting to take on the anti-vaccine movement,” said Peter Hotez, professor and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “It’s cherry picking. It’s not really doing the deep dive needed to stop the media misinformation empire [of anti-vaxers].”
Instagram held the event on Tuesday to discuss some of the safety issues on the photo-sharing app, including ongoing efforts to combat harmful content such as bullying, child exploitation and drug sales.
Health professionals argue that the spread of vaccine misinformation is harmful because it can discourage people from getting vaccinated or leave them open to contracting potentially deadly diseases such as measles. The number of measles cases reported this year in the United States has climbed to 764 as of Monday, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The majority of those cases are in New York. This is the highest number of reported cases in the United States in 25 years, the CDC said.
Instagram’s event came exactly two months after Facebook published a blog post titled “Combatting Vaccine Misinformation.”
At the time, Facebook said it was working to address vaccine misinformation on the platform by decreasing its reach and giving users legitimate information on the topic. It also said it would not show or recommend misinformation about vaccinations on Instagram’s Explore page or hashtag pages.
In late March, a spokesperson speaking for both Instagram and Facebook told CNN Business that the process of curbing the dissemination of vaccine misinformation was always meant to take place over several weeks. The spokesperson called the effort a “long-term commitment.”
On Tuesday, Instagram said it plans to add a pop-up message when users search for vaccine-related information that will provide authoritative information on the topic. However, there is no timeline for when this will become available. (Instagram has a similar pop-up notification for when users search for opioid-related content, offering ways to find support and treatment.)
While they said Instagram’s focus has been on lessening the reach of vaccine misinformation, executives said the company is open to removing some of this content.
“We’re definitely constantly re-evaluating our policies, but that’s something we’re looking at now and always,” Newton said. “We’re looking at how we can limit harm through blocking and other means, and we’re also looking at the opportunity to provide accurate information.”