Fighting Vaccine Misinformation on Facebook

Millions of Americans may refuse to take a Covid-19 vaccine, motivated by posts from anti-vaxxer groups on Facebook. The CEO for the Center for Countering Digital Hate, Imran Ahemed tells Yahoo! Finance what Facebook needs to do to stop the flow of misinformation.

Video transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: So much is being driven by this hope that Pfizer, Moderna, and all the different vaccines are going to be the key to unlocking global growth, but there's another issue with vaccines, and it's the anti-vaxxer movement. Facebook recently decided to block one of the largest anti-vaxxer sites on its platform. I want to talk more about this and the implications with Imran Ahmed. He is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. He's joining us from Washington, DC.

Imran, it's hard to believe that, in an age where science or, up until recently, science was respected, that just being able to say I don't believe it is enough. And then you can go on a platform like Facebook, and I don't believe it becomes bigger. And then people stop getting measles vaccines for instance.

IMRAN AHMED: Well, thanks, Adam. You're right. It's extraordinary that, for 200 years, vaccines have been recognized as one of the safest, most effective, most consequential inventions in human history. They've saved countless lives from disease, from disability, from death.

And, yet, now, thanks to social media, we have seen a proliferation of propaganda that says that, vaccines, there's something wrong with them or that the disease itself is not so dangerous or that you can't trust the authorities that we have come to trust over years because they've worked in our interests. And really this is a question of three industries. One is, of course, the health care industry. The second is the small, but very, very dedicated, anti-vaccine industry. The third is social media, which really has profited from both sides.

SEANA SMITH: I think the question now, though, is Facebook has taken this stance. They've put this policy forward, this policy change I think a lot of people would say is long overdue. But, of course, the question now is, can it be enforced? And what is the best way to enforce it now, going forward?

IMRAN AHMED: Well, the easiest thing they could do is have a look at the reports produced by organizations like my own, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which produced a report, "The Anti-Vaxx Industry," just a few months ago that went through who were the key players. Who are the worst offenders breaching the terms of service of the platforms themselves to spread misinformation, outright lies about vaccines, about COVID, and about authorities that we need to trust? And they could take those people's privileged platforms away from them.

Now there's a big question there about freedom of speech, but, actually, this is about the terms of service that we all accept when we join a site. I mean, we've all seen those enormous, long lists of legal mumbo jumbo that we have to sign. Well, all of us agree to that.

That's not just what we have to do as users. It's also the rights that we expect when we're on that platform. We have the right to not face hate. And we have the right to have an information flow that isn't being sullied deliberately, but we have the right to drink from clean information waters that haven't been polluted by known polluters.

ADAM SHAPIRO: How do you-- if you live in a society that believes in the marketplace of ideas, that truth will win out, how do you go forward with a Facebook platform when I think, by your numbers, 58 million people were following that anti-vaxxer site?

IMRAN AHMED: Well, Facebook is a private platform, and it has the right to say that it-- that they will host certain types of information, and it will not publish other types of information. And it already does so, for example, with Holocaust denial, which it has recently said that it will no longer tolerate. It does so with extremist hate. It rightly takes down terrorist material, which proselytizes misinformation and hate that leads to real violence.

Anti-vaccine misinformation, let's be dead clear about it. It will lead to people dying, taking risks that put themselves, their loved ones, and all of society at risk. And I think COVID has really, really brought that, crystallized that for a lot of people, that misinformation has become a critical problem that poses a threat to life.

And we all remember-- I mean, I've read John Locke when I was at university many, many years ago. And freedom of speech comes with the harm principle that there is this vitiating factor. We have to consider does the speech that someone is spouting actually lead to direct harm. With anti-vaxx, it is absolutely clear, especially under COVID, that that is true.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Very good to hear you today. I don't think anyone has ever mentioned John Locke in any of the programs I've had the privilege of being part at Yahoo Finance, but I'm thrilled that you did. Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, thank you so much for joining us. Perhaps, one day, we can talk about Lockean or Rousseauian and who's going to win this fight.