Facebook to ban ads discouraging vaccination

Facebook will ban ads that discourage people from getting vaccinated, the social media company announced on Tuesday, as it launches a new public health campaign aimed at spreading flu vaccine information.

The changes are a departure from Facebook’s previous policy, which prohibited ads with vaccine misinformation but allowed ads expressing opposition to vaccines if they did not contain false claims.

The company said in a blogpost, however, that it would still allow ads advocating for or against legislation or government policies on vaccines, including a Covid-19 vaccine. Several ads discouraging vaccine mandates remained on the platform as of Tuesday.

Anti-vaccine content and discussion will still be allowed to appear organically on the platform, including in Facebook groups. A Guardian analysis found engagement with anti-vaccine posts on a sample of Facebook pages soared this summer. A spokesman for the company told the Guardian that Facebook’s advertising policies were “overall stricter” than its community standards applying to individual users and that the company had other policies on health misinformation outside of advertising, including flagging false statements for fact checks.

“If we removed all rumors and hoaxes, the content would still be available elsewhere on the internet, social media ecosystem – or even around the dinner table,” the spokesman said. “By leaving this content up we can provide people with important information and context instead of creating an information vacuum.”

Facebook said it would begin to enforce the new regulations in the next few days. The changes come as the social media giant faces increased pressure from lawmakers and public health groups to crack down on misinformation and anti-vaccine content. It has announced several related policy changes in recent weeks.

On Monday, the platform banned content denying or distorting the Holocaust, following years of pressure. Facebook’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, in the past favored “free speech” over censoring Holocaust denial on the platform but said on Monday he had changed course in recent months because of “data showing an increase in antisemitic violence”.

Last week Facebook also banned content related to the QAnon conspiracy theory and announced it would stop political ads after election day in the US, 3 November, to prevent election misinformation.

In its blogpost announcing the new vaccine information policy, Facebook said that although a Covid-19 vaccine would not be available for some time, the pandemic had highlighted the importance of preventive health behaviors. Health officials say encouraging people to get flu vaccines is particularly important this year as the medical community battles Covid-19 and the yearly flu season concurrently.

Facebook said it is working with public health organizations including the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef to share vaccine messaging across the platform, providing them with analytics on how to reach as many people as possible.

“Vaccines have always been a global priority for Unicef, and will be even more so as the world continues to battle Covid-19,” said Diane Summers, a senior adviser at Unicef. “Building demand for vaccination in communities worldwide is key to saving lives. Our collaboration with Facebook is part of our efforts to address vaccine misinformation and share resonant and reassuring information on vaccination.”

Facebook officials had previously expressed concern about cracking down on anti-vaccine rhetoric. This summer, Facebook’s public policy manager, Jason Hirsch, told Reuters the company believed users should be able to express such personal views and that more aggressive censorship could push people hesitant about vaccines towards the anti-vaccine camp.

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