Pins and needles: Pinterest tackles spread of vaccine misinformation

Pinterest, the social media web and mobile application company which collates information on a variety of sites by topic, recognizes the critical role that social media plays in spreading health misinformation, and has taken several radical steps to correct this. First, in 2018, Pinterest voluntarily stopped showing results for searches related to vaccines. Instead, the page simply said, “If you’re looking for medical advice, please contact a healthcare provider.” It asked experts how it could improve this search. As a result, the company put many leading antivaccine websites on its banned list, and blocked the URLs in toto, so that anything from that website can no longer be pinned. Hundreds of such actions have been taken, it says.

Image Credit: Numstocker / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Numstocker / Shutterstock

The social media giant has now taken another bold step: it will show results to searches for over 200 vaccine-related search terms like “vaccine safety”, or “measles”, but all the results will come from public health organizations. These include the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and its auxiliary, the Vaccine Safety Net.

The WHO has classified vaccine opposition as among the top ten threats to world health in 2019. Social media have increasingly provided a valuable platform to disseminate such views, and several health experts attribute this to the falling immunization coverage and the outbreak of measles in countries like the UK, as well as in Europe and Asia. In fact, the Royal Society for Public Health reported that over 50% of parents who were targets for immunization information because they had small children were the recipients of false propaganda on vaccines through social media.

The issue of moderating grossly wrong content has always been a thorny one where social media is concerned. Pediatrician David Hill says, “We know that the majority of parents turn to the internet to get all sorts of information about health. A tremendous amount of really toxic vaccine misinformation spreads on the internet and social media.” To counter this, Pinterest announced that any search term or similar health-linked terms would throw up results from.

Pinterest explained why in its official statement: “We believe that showing vaccine misinformation alongside resources from public health experts isn't responsible.” Describing this as “not in line with enforcing our community guidelines”, Pinterest impact manager Ifeoma Ozoma said they have already begun to remove false health information as well as the accounts that promote it from their platform. Pins have been removed in the hundreds of thousands. In addition, it will not display advertisements, comments or advice on pages that show the results for vaccine-related searches, to avoid diluting the authoritative information with misleading opinions or comments.

In answer, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, said: “Misinformation about vaccines is contagious and dangerous. We’re delighted that Pinterest is leading the way in protecting public health by only providing evidence-based information about vaccines to its users.”

A ScienceDirect study in 2015 looked at 800 pins related to vaccines and found that most of them were against vaccine use, spreading false information about the dangers of immunization and the extent of its side effects from site to site. However, an encouraging trend was that pro-vaccination pins were always followed by larger numbers of people than the anti-vaccine posts.

In addition to suppressing misinformation, Pinterest is also partnering the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and other public health organizations to make highly attractive pins that will garner public attention to distribute the right vaccine information more widely. This goes under the name VaccineSaveLives.

Others jump on the bandwagon

Pinterest is not the only one, though it has undoubtedly been the most aggressive in its anti-misinformation drive. Facebook and other social media are also trying to limit the spread of vaccine-related misinformation since March this year in response to pressure from various sources, including the press, politicians and public health organizations. Facebook has said it was making efforts to reduce the spread of anti-vaccine propaganda, by reducing their ranking and substituting accepted sources of information instead. For instance, it would not show advertisements that spread lies about vaccines or their use, nor would they display hashtag pages with false content. Instead, it said, it would like to display correct information at the top of some search pages.

Instagram, a Facebook-owned company, also announced in May that it would not allow hashtags to be used to disseminate misinformation about vaccines. However, this action has not succeeded fully in removing anti-vaccine content from its pages.

The wildly popular YouTube has also refused to show advertisements to several top channels from February of 2019, because they spread the theory of that immunization campaigns are part of a global conspiracy to undermine health. It included vaccine misinformation in its “harmful” misinformation category, which means they are blocked by their search algorithms. It also took positive action by accompanying vaccine-related videos with an information box with a few words about the vaccine and a link to Wikipedia. Of course, in this case it followed sharp reproofs from several firms who resented the fact that their ads were being displayed in accompaniment to such videos.

Amazon no longer lists several anti-vaccine movies that spread false claims on its streaming video service. However, according to Pinterest, it’s not enough to just link to the right sources without blocking and removing the wrong sources. The Vaccine Safety Network’s Isabelle Sahinovic lauded the efforts of Pinterest as “a critical addition to the global health community’s efforts to tackle harmful misinformation online.”

The AAP is also working with the magazine SELF to transform the visual impression associated with vaccinations. Instead of babies crying, sharp needles (often of the wrong kind, or held in obviously wrong positions), threatening doctors and other images that create fear, this initiative aims to create compelling but beautiful images with factual accuracy, to win over those who are hesitating about immunization due to various pressures. Created to show that immunization is both a pro-active and health-promoting step, these photos can be freely downloaded from Flickr under a creative commons license.

David Hill says, “As the entire industry asks itself how to come to terms with the vast influence social media has over people’s day-to-day decisions, I hope that more platforms will look to the steps that Pinterest has taken as a viable model for socially responsible communications.”

Dr. Liji Thomas

Written by

Dr. Liji Thomas

Dr. Liji Thomas is an OB-GYN, who graduated from the Government Medical College, University of Calicut, Kerala, in 2001. Liji practiced as a full-time consultant in obstetrics/gynecology in a private hospital for a few years following her graduation. She has counseled hundreds of patients facing issues from pregnancy-related problems and infertility, and has been in charge of over 2,000 deliveries, striving always to achieve a normal delivery rather than operative.


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