02.14.19

Schiff Sends Letter to Google, Facebook Regarding Anti-Vaccine Misinformation

Schiff Asks CEOs to Address this Important Public Health Issue on Respective Platforms

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), sent a letter to Sundar Pichai and Mark Zuckerberg, the Chief Executive Officers of Google and Facebook, respectively, to express concern that the company’s platforms including YouTube, Facebook and Instagram, are surfacing and recommending information that discourages parents from vaccinating their children, contributing to declining vaccination rates which could reverse progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.

“As a Member of Congress who is deeply concerned about declining vaccination rates, I am requesting additional information on the steps that you currently take to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to your users, and to encourage you to consider additional steps you can take to address this growing problem,” Schiff wrote in the letter. “I was pleased to see YouTube’s recent announcement that it will no longer recommend videos that violate its community guidelines, such as conspiracy theories or medically inaccurate videos, and encourage further action to be taken related to vaccine misinformation.”

The scientific and medical communities are in overwhelming consensus that vaccines are both effective and safe. There is no evidence to suggest that vaccines cause life-threatening or disabling diseases, and the dissemination of unfounded and debunked theories about the dangers of vaccinations pose a great risk to public health.

In 2015, Rep. Schiff first introduced the bipartisan Vaccines Save Lives resolution, recognizing the importance of vaccines and immunizations in the United States. The resolution sends a message of unequivocal Congressional support for vaccines and urges parents, in consultation with their health care providers, to follow scientific evidence and the consensus of medical experts in favor of timely vaccination for the well-being of their children and surrounding communities.

The full text of the letters are below:

February 14, 2019

Sundar Pichai
Chief Executive Officer
Google
1600 Amphitheater Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043

Dear, Mr. Pichai:

As more Americans use the Internet and social media platforms as their primary source of information, it is important that we explore the quality of the information that they receive, particularly on issues that directly impact the health and well-being of Americans, as well as the billions who use your site around the world. Accordingly, I am writing out of my concern that YouTube is surfacing and recommending messages that discourage parents from vaccinating their children, a direct threat to public health, and reversing progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.

The scientific and medical communities are in overwhelming consensus that vaccines are both effective and safe. There is no evidence to suggest that vaccines cause life-threatening or disabling diseases, and the dissemination of unfounded and debunked theories about the dangers of vaccinations pose a great risk to public health. In fact, the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – as one of the top threats to global health in 2019. In a dramatic demonstration of the dangers, Washington state declared a public health emergency due to a measles epidemic in Clark County, signaling the resurgence of a potentially fatal disease that was effectively eliminated from the United States decades ago by vaccines.

There is strong evidence to suggest that at least part of the source of this trend is the degree to which medically inaccurate information about vaccines surface on the websites where many Americans get their information, among them YouTube and Google search. As I have discussed with you in other contexts, and as you have acknowledged, the algorithms which power these services are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information, and the consequences of that are particularly troubling for public health issues. If a concerned parent consistently sees information in their YouTube recommendations that casts doubt on the safety or efficacy of vaccines, it could cause them to disregard the advice of their children’s physicians and public health experts and decline to follow the recommended vaccination schedule. Repetition of information, even if false, can often be mistaken for accuracy, and exposure to anti-vaccine content via social media may negatively shape user attitudes towards vaccination.

Additionally, even parents and guardians who seek out accurate information about vaccines could unwittingly reach pages and videos with misinformation. A report by the Guardian[1]  found that on both Facebook and YouTube, suggested searches related to vaccines often led users to pages or groups providing medically and scientifically inaccurate information.

As a Member of Congress who is deeply concerned about declining vaccination rates around the nation, I am requesting additional information on the steps that you currently take to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to your users, and to encourage you to consider additional steps you can take to address this growing problem. I was pleased to see YouTube’s recent announcement that it will no longer recommend videos that violate its community guidelines, such as conspiracy theories or medically inaccurate videos, and encourage further action to be taken related to vaccine misinformation.

Specifically, I request that you provide answers on the following questions:

  • Does content which provides medically inaccurate information about vaccines violate your terms of service?
  • What action(s) do you currently take to address misinformation related to vaccines on your platforms? Are you considering or taking additional actions?
  • Do you accept paid advertising from anti-vaccine activists and groups on your platforms? How much has been spent in the past year on advertising on this topic?
  • What steps do you currently take to prevent anti-vaccine videos or information from being recommended to users, either algorithmically or as a suggested search result?

I appreciate your timely response to these questions and encourage you to consider what additional steps you can take to address this growing problem. As more Americans rely on your services as their primary source of information, it is vital that you take that responsibility with the seriousness it requires, and nowhere more so than in matters of public health and children’s health. Thank you for your attention to this important topic.

Sincerely,

Adam B. Schiff
Member of Congress

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/feb/01/facebook-youtube-anti-vaccination-misinformation-social-media

February 14, 2019

Mark Zuckerberg
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
Facebook Inc.
1 Hacker Way
Menlo Park, CA 94025

Dear, Mr. Zuckerberg:

As more Americans use the Internet and social media platforms as their primary source of information, it is important that we explore the quality of the information that they receive, particularly on issues that directly impact the health and well-being of Americans, as well as the billions who use your site around the world. Accordingly, I am writing out of my concern that Facebook and Instagram are surfacing and recommending messages that discourage parents from vaccinating their children, a direct threat to public health, and reversing progress made in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases.

The scientific and medical communities are in overwhelming consensus that vaccines are both effective and safe. There is no evidence to suggest that vaccines cause life-threatening or disabling diseases, and the dissemination of unfounded and debunked theories about the dangers of vaccinations pose a great risk to public health. In fact, the World Health Organization listed vaccine hesitancy – the reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines – as one of the top threats to global health in 2019. In a dramatic demonstration of the dangers, Washington state declared a public health emergency due to a measles epidemic in Clark County, signaling the resurgence of a potentially fatal disease that was effectively eliminated from the United States decades ago by vaccines.

There is strong evidence to suggest that at least part of the source of this trend is the degree to which medically inaccurate information about vaccines surface on the websites where many Americans get their information, among them Facebook and Instagram. As I have discussed with you in other contexts, and as you have acknowledged, the algorithms which power these services are not designed to distinguish quality information from misinformation or misleading information, and the consequences of that are particularly troubling for public health issues. I acknowledge that it may not always be a simple matter to determine when information is medically accurate, nor do we ask that your platform engage in the practice of medicine, but if a concerned parent consistently sees information in their Newsfeed that casts doubt on the safety or efficacy of vaccines, it could cause them to disregard the advice of their children’s physicians and public health experts and decline to follow the recommended vaccination schedule. Repetition of information, even if false, can often be mistaken for accuracy, and exposure to anti-vaccine content via social media may negatively shape user attitudes towards vaccination.

Additionally, even parents and guardians who seek out accurate information about vaccines could unwittingly reach pages and videos with misinformation. A report by the Guardian[1]  found that on both Facebook and YouTube, suggested searches related to vaccines often led users to pages or groups providing medically and scientifically inaccurate information. Finally, I am concerned by the report that Facebook accepts paid advertising that contains deliberate misinformation about vaccines.

As a Member of Congress who is deeply concerned about declining vaccination rates around the nation, I am requesting additional information on the steps that you currently take to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to your users, and to encourage you to consider additional steps you can take to address this growing problem. I was pleased to see YouTube’s recent announcement that it will no longer recommend videos that violate its community guidelines, such as conspiracy theories or medically inaccurate videos, and encourage further action to be taken related to vaccine misinformation.

Specifically, I request that you provide answers on the following questions:

  • Does content which provides medically inaccurate information about vaccines violate your terms of service?
  • What action(s) do you currently take to address misinformation related to vaccines on your platforms? Are you considering or taking additional actions?
  • Do you accept paid advertising from anti-vaccine activists and groups on your platforms? How much has been spent in the past year on advertising on this topic?
  • What steps do you currently take to prevent anti-vaccine videos or information from being recommended to users, either algorithmically or as a suggested search result?

I appreciate your timely response to these questions and encourage you to consider what additional steps you can take to address this growing problem. As more Americans rely on your services as their primary source of information, it is vital that you take that responsibility with the seriousness it requires, and nowhere more so than in matters of public health and children’s health. Thank you for your attention to this important topic. 

Sincerely,

Adam B. Schiff
Member of Congress

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/feb/01/facebook-youtube-anti-vaccination-misinformation-social-media