50% of parents of young children are more exposed to anti-vaxx messages on social media, report finds

Getty Images/Jeff J MitchellHalf of new parents surveyed had seen negative messages about vaccination on social media.
  • A survey by the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) showed that half of parents with children under five had seen anti-vaccination messages online.
  • The anti-vaxx movement has found a foothold on social media, and a spokesman for the RSPH said people cannot afford to be complacent about its effect.
  • A Guardian report pointed to the fact that some anti-vaxxers are targeting parents with paid-for ads.
  • However, paid-for ads aren’t the only way anti-vaccination messages are disseminated.

A new report from the UK’s Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) shows the extent to which new parents are exposed to misinformation about vaccinating their child on social media.

The new report cited a survey of 2,000 UK adults, conducted in summer 2018. 41% of parents with children under the age of 18 had seen “negative messages” about vaccinations on social media, and 50% parents with young children (under the age of five) had seen them. Comparatively, only 27% of people with no children had seen anti-vaccine messages online.

The report itself was sponsored by pharmaceutical company MSD. The RSPH states in the report that MSD, “did not have editorial input and is not responsible or the content or opinions expressed as part of this activity.”

The anti-vaxx movement argues against children being vaccinated, believing vaccines to be harmful or fatal. It gained momentum in 1998 when the now-disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield falsely claimed in a discredited research paper that there was a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

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While the report didn’t draw any definitive conclusion about whether parents were being targeted by anti-vaxx groups on social media, a spokesman for the RSPH told Business Insider that we “cannot afford to be complacent about the effects of social media.” He added that while overall vaccine uptake in Europe has improved in recent years, various childhood vaccines have experienced dips. This year, for example, saw outbreaks of measles in Europe and the US.

The Guardian’s Sarah Bosely pointed to a case where UK advertising watchdog the ASA ordered a Facebook advert from anti-vaxxer Larry Cook be removed for misleading parents. In the ASA’s ruling, Cook said that he had targeted users with an interest in parenting because he “intended to cause parents some concern before choosing to vaccinate their children.” The ASA told The Guardian that Cook had not complied with the ruling.

Business Insider could not find the ad on Facebook’s Ad Transparency tool, but there were many more similar ads paid for by Cook.

Part of the problem is that not all anti-vaxx messages are paid-for adverts, and therefore aren’t subject to the same standards of accuracy. A Facebook spokesman told Business Insider that while Facebook is eager to curb the spread of misinformation, a blanket approach to anti-vaccine messages on social media could result in clamping down on freedom of speech.

“We don’t want misleading content on Facebook and have made significant investments in recent years to stop misinformation from spreading and to promote high-quality journalism and news literacy. That said, we always try to strike a balance between allowing free speech and keeping people safe – which is why we don’t prevent people from saying something that is factually incorrect, particularly if they aren’t doing so intentionally. However we do take steps to ensure this kind of content is demoted in people’s News Feeds to give it less chance of being seen and spread and – ultimately – to discourage those posting it,” he said.

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