Facebook is under fire for failing to take action against anti-vaccination misinformation on its platform. Picture: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
Facebook is under fire for failing to take action against anti-vaccination misinformation on its platform. Picture: AP Photo/Paul Sakuma

Facebook under fire for anti-vax fail

SOCIAL media giant Facebook is facing mounting calls to rid anti-vaccination groups from its platform.

More than 30,000 Australians have signed a petition to stop anti-vax groups spreading potentially harmful messages - like those during recent measles outbreaks - to misinformed parents.

The call also comes as Facebook faces pressure from United States politicians to remove the dangerous online "echo chambers," and after other social networks including Pinterest and YouTube moved to restrict the reach of anti-vaccination posts and revenue.

Brisbane software developer David Brand, 31, told News Corp he created the Australian online petition after becoming frustrated with the amount of misleading "anti-vax propaganda" on Facebook that was left to spread unchecked.

The Change.org petition quickly jumped from 1000 signatories to more than 5000, he said, but recently attracted thousands more voices following measles cases in Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, and the ACT this month.

Mr Brand said social media users were frustrated no action was being taken to stop the spread of false vaccine information, and that parents "would believe Facebook's propaganda over their doctor or medical professional".

"The biggest mechanism for this propaganda to spread is Facebook," he said.

"If you looked at the correlation between Facebook growing after 2008 and the anti-vaccine movement, that's probably when it started to grow. That's when these pages and groups were able to expose lies about vaccines.

"If Facebook was to remove these pages or clamp down on them, it would make a massive difference."

One closed Australian anti-vaccination group on the social network currently boasts more than 17,800 members, while several other well-subscribed groups are dedicated to opposing federal 'No Jab, No Pay' laws designed to increase national vaccination rates.

But moves are under way to limit their influence on social media.

Pinterest recently revealed it had blocked all searches about vaccines on its site, and Google-owned video platform YouTube last week removed paid advertisements from videos promoting anti-vaccination content.

Facebook and Google are also under pressure in the US after Californian congressman Adam Schiff called for the networks to take action against vaccine misinformation, and following an outbreak of measles in Washington.

Southern Cross University lecturer Dr James Donnelly said it was clearly "unethical" for social networks to make "millions of dollars from people's fears" and the tech giants had a responsibility to remove "dangerous" groups promoting information that could harm children.

"It would clearly be seen as dangerous and not ethical to allow this material to stay on there," Dr Donnelly said.

"Anything that promotes that (vaccination autism link) is promoting a dangerous myth. I think social media networks have a responsibility to moderate, whenever possible, that kind of information or the way people use their websites."

Dr Donnelly said well-meaning parents often joined anti-vax groups out of fear or because they hadn't been adequately informed of medical risks, but "if they don't have access to the best information, we certainly don't want them to have access to the worst information".

A Facebook spokesman did not address Australian calls to remove anti-vax groups but said the company was "currently working on additional changes" in relation to its policy.

"We've taken steps to reduce the distribution of health-related misinformation on Facebook, but we know we have more to do," he said.