I’m uncomfortable about censoring anti-vaccine propaganda on social media

Vials and syringe on white table with blue background

You might think I’d be happy about the censoring of anti-vaccine propaganda by social media. Over the years I’ve written extensively and in scathing terms about the ignorance, arrogance, and immorality of the anti-vax movement. There is no scientific evidence to support its claims; its promoters are quacks and charlatans; and it harms the most vulnerable among us.

And yet … I’m deeply uncomfortable.

The remedy for false speech is more speech, not enforced silence.

I’ve also acknowledged the critical role played by social media in the rising popularity of what is basically a superstition. Just as there is no empirical support for fearing the number 13, there is no empirical support for the phobia around vaccination, a corollary of needle phobia.

The anti-vax movement has been around since the inception of vaccination over 200 years ago. It has been active in the US since colonial times. But, let’s face it, it’s a lot harder to spread conspiracies when you have to mimeograph crudely typed claims. It’s so much easier — an more persuasive — to congregate in the virtual space of social media to give support and encouragement to even the most bizarre beliefs.

And yet … I fear the consequences.

I have no doubt that censoring anti-vax propaganda on social media will be effective and will probably save lives. A sense of solidarity with others is critical for anti-vaxxers in defying nearly all doctors, scientists and public health officials in the world.

And yet … I worry that the cure might be worse than the disease.

Why? Because social media companies should not be in the business of deciding what people can read and say. Today it may be anti-vax propaganda; tomorrow it may be climate science, abortion science or something equally controversial.

Don’t get me wrong: I understand that Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are private companies and therefore have complete discretion over the content they allow on their platforms. There is no question that it is legal for social media companies to censor speech.

I recognize that this is entirely different from government censorship, which is largely forbidden because of the First Amendment.

I’m generally not a fan of slippery slope arguments, yet I worry that we are at the top of a slope that is very slippery indeed.

Wait! Isn’t anti-vax propaganda unique in that it represents a public health problem? We’ve observed that rising fears around vaccination have led to declining immunization rates. We know that when rates decline below a certain point (different for each disease), the diseases will begin to reappear. We predicted the current outbreaks of measles and pertussis right down to the locations where they were most likely to appear.

But can we really argue that anti-vax propaganda represents a bigger health threat than climate change denial? Anti-vax propaganda makes it difficult to protect the most vulnerable among us — infants, the elderly and the immunocompromised. Climate change denial makes is nearly impossible to protect nearly ALL of us who are going to be profoundly impacted (possibly with deadly effect) by man made climate change. Yet Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest aren’t thinking about censoring climate denial.

Can we really argue that anti-vax propaganda represents a bigger public health problem than gun violence? To date, anti-vax propaganda sickens hundreds and kills very few. Widespread availability of guns kill tens of thousands of vulnerable, defenseless Americans (many of them children) EVERY year. Yet no social media platform is thinking about censoring gun rights talk.

So anti-vax propaganda is NOT unique as a form of speech that threatens public health.

Indeed, anti-vax propaganda is a subset of the massive industry of “alternative” health. Just about everything that travels under the imprimatur of alternative health is also propaganda — lacking scientific support, fabricating claims, harming individuals directly as well as by keeping them from getting real medical care.

If social media platforms are censoring anti-vax propaganda, shouldn’t they also be censoring fake cancer cures, outlandish restriction diets, and invocations to ingest supplements that are useless in the best case scenario and deadly in the worst case? If the justification for censoring anti-vax propaganda is that it is both unscientific and harmful, shouldn’t social media platforms be regulating ALL unscientific and harmful speech?

Who decides what is harmful enough to merit censorship? Who decides what is unscientific enough to merit being suppressed?

I suspect that I would have these concerns regardless of who was president, but if Donald Trump has done anything, he has alerted us to how very thin the veneer of democratic civilization really is.

Trump has made the previously theoretical risk of autocracy into an all too real risk. He has engaged in political vilification of disfavored people, disfavored political beliefs and disfavored public health organizations. If he were to “encourage” social media platforms to censor disfavored political speech under threat of tax or other financial penalties on the grounds that it is “harmful”, how would we differentiate that from censoring anti-vax propaganda?

Anti-vax propaganda is not hate speech but I wonder if we should treat it similarly. First Amendment advocates have always argued that the remedy for hate speech (which arguably harms, maims and kills more people than anti-vax propaganda) is MORE speech. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote in the concurrence to Whitney v. California:

…[N]o danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion. If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.

Brandeis was writing about what the government should and should not do, not private entities. As I acknowledged above, they are legally entitled to censor anti-vax propaganda. But that doesn’t mean that they should or that we ought to encourage them to do so.

There is no doubt in my mind that censoring anti-vax propaganda on social media will improve public health. My fear is that it will imperil intellectual freedom in the process.

  • Barbara Delaney

    The research into Russia’s Internet Research Agency published in the American Journal of Public Health, found that “accounts masquerading as legitimate users create false equivalency, eroding public consensus on vaccination.” The same Russians who interfered with the 2016 election have been responsible for malicious propaganda that has fueled the anti-vax campaign. I think it’s unconscionable for Mark Zuckerberg to profit from giving Russia a platform to sow chaos.

  • Merrie

    Today at work I helped an elderly couple with vaccines. We got to chatting and I found out that he had lost a family member to measles (I forget which family member he said) and she had lost a sister to whooping cough who was only a baby. This lady should have had a big sister and she never got to know her! People blow this stuff off but vaccines save lives!

    • MaineJen

      Yep. My grandmother lost a sister to pertussis; the sister was only 3 years old. A brother on my grandfather’s side died of diphtheria at age 20; he went away for what was supposed to be a week long holiday and never came home. It wasn’t that long ago that people were deathly afraid of these illnesses.

  • stainlesssteel

    “Yet Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest aren’t thinking about censoring climate denial… can we really argue that anti-vax propaganda represents a bigger health threat than climate change denial?…censoring gun rights talk…. fake cancer cures, outlandish restriction diets…supplements…”

    Ultimate harm is just one part of the harm equation. Disease epidemics have a much better understood timeframe, contagion vectors and scale of harm than these other issues: Epidemics can spread in days, while climate change, gun control, fake cancer cures are years at a time lumbering beasts.

    Your Louis Brandeis citation notes the relevance of immediacy in overall threat:
    “…[N]o danger flowing from speech can be deemed clear and present, unless the incidence of the evil apprehended is so imminent that it may befall before there is opportunity for full discussion…”

    Agreed, climate change has a bigger overall long term risk of harm than antivaxx propaganda, given many more unknowns like potential chain reactive exponential temperature increases.

  • Renée Béatrice

    Anti-vaccine propaganda is dangerous to public health, it’s dangerous to children, elderly people and immunocompromised people, and if more people buy into this propaganda we’re going to start seeing serious diseases become commonplace, and it’s going to be the kids and innocent people who get sick and die. I don’t think we should limit access to conspiracy theories that don’t threaten the safety of our communities but anti-vaxx groups, as well as “alternative medicine” pages that encourage cancer patients to burn themselves down to the bone and these “free birth” sites that are killing newborns shouldn’t be allowed to keep doing this. If people aren’t allowed to promote anorexia or pedophilia why would they be allowed to promote dangerous stuff like black salve, or tell someone not to seek medical attention when they have a fever of 104 during labor, or tell someone not to get their kids the rabies vaccine after they’re bitten by a bat? The line needs to be drawn when it becomes a threat to people’s lives. I don’t see the comparison to gun rights, I don’t care for the extreme gun nuts but it’s possible to safely and responsibly own a gun, it isn’t like gun rights activists are going around telling people to leave their guns unsecured around children, or that guns can’t kill and getting shot is a normal childhood injury. I don’t think it’s the same thing. As someone who isn’t American I don’t understand why people worship “free speech” when it comes to protecting dangerous ideologies. There has to be a line.

  • Platos_Redhaired_Stepchild

    The 1st Amendment/Free Speech does not cover yelling fire in a crowded theater or inciting others to violence (either one could be considered acts of terrorism). Anti-vax is propaganda pushed by a hostile foreign government to harm americans. The same people funding & egging on white supremacist groups to commit acts of domestic terrorism are also pushing anti-vax for the same ends: killing us, weakening us as a whole.

    So anti-vaxxers are not just a bunch of dimwitted uneducated fools spreading around crazy conspiracy theories all on their own because they believe them. These are people who are spreading this nonsense on purpose for the sole reason to cause harm.

    As you said: Facebook & twitter & reddit etc are privately owned companies. They have no obligation to provide a platform to anti-vaxxers (or white supremacists).

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/a975490093fda5975704034b0d6f5033bf41a39c7d4d4a9fb925e1385f755b89.png

  • Who?

    This forum had a discussion a couple of years ago concerning the
    non-publication of a book by the tedious Milo Yiannopolis, after the
    publisher decided that it wouldn’t sell. From memory, Dr T was unhappy with that on free speech grounds, others (including me) saw it as just another commercial decision. We felt it was a very different thing from the government deciding the book couldn’t be published because of its content.

    As an Australian-we emphatically don’t have freedom of speech-I am always interested in how, to my eyes, it is fetishised.

    This is topical because just last week, news was released in Australia that Cardinal George Pell, the third most senior catholic in the world and by far Australia’s most senior catholic, was convicted in December 2018 of child sexual offences committed in the 1990’s. Release of the news was delayed as the Cardinal-who is in his eighties-required surgery, and was thereafter to stand trial for more offences. The second trial would also be by jury, and the concern was that if an incoming jury was aware of the earlier guilty finding it might be influenced in its decision-making in the second trial.

    As it turned out, the second trial was aborted when some of the evidence the Crown relied on was ruled inadmissable, and the news was released by the Court.

    There was very little discussion here about whether there was anything wrong with the delay, apart from the fact that the rest of the world could report it. Had the second trial gone ahead, both results would likely have been published together.

    In the meantime the Cardinal is nowhere near children. For now, he’s on remand awaiting sentence, in custody with other notorious paedophile priests.

    • fiftyfifty1

      Actually, the Milo case was a bit more convoluted than you remember. Dr. Tuteur was not critical of Simon & Schuster, but rather of Roxane Gay, a black feminist scholar. Gay had planned to publish her book with S&S, but then when S&S decided to publish Milo and gave him a big advance and publicity push, Gay took her book elsewhere in protest (Milo had encouraged his groupies in making racial and rape threats against various African-American women.) Dr. Tuteur accused Gay of censorship.
      S&S did eventually decide not to publish Milo, but it had nothing to do with Gay. Instead it was due to a (white) woman who deliberately decided to shut him down. She went though his old interviews until she found one where he talked about his history of being sexually abused in his teens and his ambivalence about it as an adult. She spun his remarks as being “pro-pedophilia” to the press. and the subsequent fallout caused The Republican Party to cancel his invitation to speak at a major conference and S&S to pull his book deal. Oddly, Dr. Tuteur never criticized S&S, the Republican Party or this woman for censoring Milo.

      • Who?

        Thankyou-I thought there were some others involved but couldn’t find the link to the page.

        I remember being confused by Dr T’s position at the time, but not why.

  • Tony Gilchrist

    All forms of child abuse should be banned from all media platforms. Anti-vax included…

  • Tiffanie Wilson

    I understand your concern but just because something may look like a slippery slope doesn’t mean it is one. Social media is not censoring flat Earthers, chemtrail believers, the Bigfoot community, Chronic Lyme, etc etc because not many of those actually affect the health of the general population. Had it not been the media coverage of all the measles outbreaks the “censorship” would not even been a thing. Climate change, the general population has no control over. We can buy hybrids and use recycled goods for a century and it would not have the impact of closing one coal-fired power plant. Guns are filed under Constitutional amendment and shutting down anti/pro-gun talk is too close to violating free speech. I think the fake cancer cures, crazy diets, homeopathic skulduggery, etc should be shut down as well but until there is wildly publicized death or harm attributed to those, they will continue to run free. Social media is not shutting anti-vax propaganda down out of some sort of flash of conscience, they are avoiding possible lawsuits. It’s not a stretch, the girl who encouraged that boy to kill himself through text is serving time. How long before people start to blame a social media site of complicity.

  • LaMont

    Eh, my biggest issue are the algorithms. Lies are easier to tell than truths because they’re simpler – if you look up one pro-vaccine video on Youtube, it will automatically populate your feed full of anti-vaxx videos the next day. I watched a Christopher Hitchens speech on youtube, next thing I knew I was seeing recs for truly evil anti-feminist regressive youtube atheism I wanted no part of. More speech doesn’t help, it literally directs people straight to the lies.

    • rational thinker

      I loved Christopher Hitchens I miss that man.

    • Anj Fabian

      So far I’ve heard that the platforms are rigging search results so anti vaccine results don’t pop up when you research something like “vaccine safety”.

      I fight regularly with the various algorithms either because they prefer “popular” results or in the case of targeted advertising, they offer me things that I have no interest in. It’s not difficult to use different keywords to get better results. Rigged search results slow me down, but they don’t stop me. If someone really wants to find anti vaccine sites, they can.

  • fiftyfifty1

    I draw a bright line between government censorship and private censorship. Government censorship should be allowed only in the most extreme cases (e.g. publishing state secrets during a war). In contrast, private censorship should be freely allowed. Muddying the line between the 2 types actually makes us less free. If Facebook, a private entity, is not allowed to decide what it will and will not publish, then THAT is a slippery slope we should worry about. Your theoretical scenario about Trump threatening or taxing certain types of speech falls firmly on the side of government censorship, and is not allowed.

    • But Dr. Tuteur agrees that private companies “are legally entitled to censor anti-vax propaganda. But that doesn’t mean that they should or that we ought to encourage them to do so.” I agree with her, because humans being what they are speech censorship becomes heavy-handed, even when it doesn’t start out so.

      • fiftyfifty1

        Dr. Tuteur seems to believe that when private entities choose not to say or print something, that this is akin to government censorship. And although she allows it is legal, she still sees it as fundamentally bad. She sees it as a stifling of the marketplace of ideas. In contrast, I view it as an integral part of the marketplace of ideas. Some ideas are better than others, and private entities should be allowed to say or publish these ideas without having to give equal time to the opposition. For example, as a private entity I can choose to say, and NOT SAY, what I want. As I doc, I can print brochures saying that vaccines are safe and effective, and distribute these to my patients. Should I be required to also print and distribute brochures saying that vaccines are unsafe and ineffective, because censorship is always bad?

        • Who?

          I agree-in the marketplace, why should you have to publish the opposition position just because they ask you to?

  • demodocus

    It could be a slippery slope, but then can’t there be a slippery slope the other way? Most hills have multiple slopes, after all, and even a slide has 2 sides you can descend from. It’s the yelling fire in a crowded theater exception. Some things have too much likelihood of danger to everybody involved.