Facebook’s newest update could help save lives.The Silicon Valley tech company announced on Wednesday that its latest feature will activate informational pop-ups when users create or search for content related to vaccines, providing them with reliable information from authoritative health sources.
Visiting vaccine-related groups and pages or searching for associated keywords and hashtags on the social platform — and Facebook-owned Instagram — will trigger a window that directs users in the US to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and users worldwide to the World Health Organization.
"The World Health Organization and Facebook have been in discussions for several months to ensure people will be able to access authoritative information on vaccines and reduce the spread of inaccuracies," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a written statement on Wednesday.
Outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases like measles have become more common in countries, where the disease was previously more scarce. Measles has made a comeback in the United States, United Kingdom, and other parts of Europe recently. Experts point to falling vaccination rates as a contributing factor.
Health organizations, like the CDC, and public health experts have previously warned of the dangers of health and vaccine misinformation spread through social platforms like Facebook and other online forums. Information can be shared on these platforms without any vetting and people are able to seek advice from non-reputable sources — like their peers or anti-vaxxers rather than scientists and health professionals.
"We know that parents often turn to social media to access health information and connect with other parents, and it can be difficult to determine what is accurate and who the credible sources of information are," CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement to CNN on Wednesday.
People who believe medically unsound claims often spread on social media — such as the purported link between vaccines for measles, mumps, and rubella and autism in children — are vaccinating themselves and their children less and less, leading to massive outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.
The new Facebook feature comes this year as part of an effort by the tech giant to combat anti-vax misinformation that has been amplified through the platform and others like it.
"We want people to get accurate information, particularly about health," Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, told CNN in June.
The company has already demoted groups and pages that share misinformation about vaccines, significantly reducing the amount of people who come across their content. In addition, the company now tightly regulates related ads, rejecting those promoting myths and scientifically-unfounded claims.
In some cases, Facebook is also removing content with dangerous inaccuracies about vaccines, but says it will not remove all related posts in order to foster educational debate.
"When things are false, we dramatically decrease it, and we show the other side of the story. That's because the debate has to happen. The way you can say something is false is, you have to be able to say, 'here's the true side of the story' — and so we want that debate to happen so that people do get educated and understand that the science is settled,” Sandberg said.
With Facebook’s recent changes this year, the CDC has come out in support of the progess the company has achieved so far in combating the rise of misinformation about these serious health issues.
"[Combating] vaccine myths and misinformation is a shared responsibility and we applaud these efforts,” Nordlund said.