I’ve been discussing how tech giants and social media companies have been belatedly trying to stem the flood of health misinformation in the wake of the largest measles outbreaks in more than a generation. Both Google and Facebook have been tweaking their algorithms and adjusting their rules to try at least to deprioritize antivaccine content. Mike Adams, for instance, was kicked off YouTube last year and off of Facebook a month ago. Google has clearly adjusted its algorithms and started enforcing its penalty against misinformation about “Your Money or Your Life” (YMYL), which includes web pages about financial and medical issues, leading to dramatic falls in search engine-generated traffic at sites like Joe Mercola’s. More recently, tech companies have been broadening the net and trying to deal with more forms of medical misinformation than just antivaccine misinformation. Even so, I questioned whether social media and search companies were doing enough. After all, all Facebook and YouTube, for example, did was to demonetize antivaccine content by not letting its creators run ads and to deprioritize such content in their in-platform search results without actually taking it down. Left intact on Facebook were thousands of groups dedicated to health misinformation, particularly antivaccine misinformation and dangerous quackery aimed at autistic children, some secret, where misinformation continued to flow and activists plotted strategies to harass pro-vaccine advocates. Then I saw yesterday a heartening development reported by Katie Joy. Apparently Larry Cook, the administrator of one of the largest antivaccine Facebook groups in existence, Stop Mandatory Vaccination, was put on notice by Facebook that his page had many violations of community guidelines and was soon going to be taken down:
A massive Facebook group dedicated to spreading fear and misinformation related to vaccines is on the verge of being shut down. Stop Mandatory Vaccination administrator Larry Cook announced to the 167,00 group members that the group has violated dozens of community guidelines, and Facebook has had enough. According to a post uploaded by Larry Cook, his group “Stop Mandatory Vaccinations” is about to be shut down. Cook shared a screenshot from Facebook alerting him of the violations of the group. In Spring 2019, Facebook announced changes to its community guidelines related to groups and pages that spread vaccine misinformation. Facebook said that groups that continually shared false or misleading information related to vaccines could be shut down. Additionally, Facebook tasked group administrators with monitoring the content shared in the group.
Joy also made a video:
Larry Cook shared a notification from Facebook that warned him that his group had three Community Standard Violations and 67 counts of sharing false news. (Only 67? That must have been just the number reported, because practically every post in Stop Mandatory Vaccination shares false news about vaccines.) Here’s his full message:
I find it rather ironic and amusing that Larry Cook has been snared by the algorithms that antivaxers have wielded so effectively against pro-vaccine advocates over the last few years to get them put in “Facebook jail,” or temporary bans from posting on Facebook that can last up to 30 days. The difference is that, this time, the algorithms appear to be working as intended, rather than being gamed to be weaponized against unintended targets.
I also find Cook’s whine about moderating 400 posts a day to be a bit disingenuous. As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, antivaccine activism has been Larry Cook’s only job since 2016. He could totally moderate 400 posts a day if he so desired. In any event, until Facebook’s crackdown in recent months on monetizing antivaccine content, Cook had been quite successful at it, as a recent Daily Beast story on his weaponizing Facebook ads in his war on vaccines shows (not to mention his panicked reaction when he learned that reporters were looking into his finances.) Basically, he used a combination of Facebook and GoFundMe to raise close to $80,000 and has bought more Facebook ads than any other antivaxer:
Cook, according to Facebook’s own tallies, has been the No. 1 anti-vaxxer buying ads on the site since it began tracking campaigns in May, spending $1,776 in the last nine months to boost his posts. For the latest campaign, Cook boasts that he will be targeting a specific group, namely moms in Washington State, where public health workers are struggling to keep the outbreak under control.
Recall that Washington has been the site of a large measles outbreak, making Cook’s actions particularly egregious and irresponsible.
I checked this morning before this post went live, and, unfortunately, Stop Mandatory Vaccination is still up and running—for now. Katie Joy’s post was published yesterday, and in it she noted how she had perused the group and noted many posts that were spreading false news (I guess that’s Facebook’s term for “fake news”) about vaccines, including at the time the two most recent posts. I perused it this morning after having written most of this post last night and found the same thing. For example:
He’s also promoting snake oil autism “cures” like Kerri Rivera’s Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) “CD treatment,” or, as I like to call it, bleach enemas, because it involves feeding children industrial bleach until they get sick and using it as an enema to “get rid of parasites” until children slough the lining of their colon. No, really. I’m serious.
Not surprisingly, Cook is scrambling to save what he can. He’s urging members (in multiple posts on Stop Mandatory Vaccination) to join his backup MeWe group. To be honest, I don’t recall ever having heard of MeWe; so I’m guessing that’ll work really well. He’s also urging people to join his mailing list, which I did with a throwaway email address just for yucks (and to supply me with blogging material). Finally, he’s also trying to transition members to another Facebook group, The Vaccine-Free Child, where the same sort of nonsense is being shared:
It’s such a transparently obvious attempt to do an end run around Facebook’s rules that I doubt the group will exist for long. I can’t help but feel a sense of schadenfreude over Larry Cook’s downfall. He might think he’s doing good, but in the process he’s turned antivaccine activism into his full time job and spread misinformation claiming that vaccines regularly kill and injure children around the world. It’s especially sad that hte considers the Facebook page he created, which served as a vector for so much misinformation for so long, to be his “greatest achievement.” I don’t shed a single tear for him.
As for Facebook, the question is whether this is just an anomaly or a warning shot in a bigger effort. Four months ago, Facebook announced a multistep plan to crackdown on antivaccine misinformation. So far, while I welcome the attempt, I’ve been concerned that Facebook is relying too heavily on algorithms and AI alone and not enough on humans to moderate and train those algorithms and AI. Until now, all I’ve seen are measures of questionable effectiveness, such as demonetizing and deprioritizing antivaccine content without actually removing it. Getting rid of Stop Mandatory Vaccination, one of the largest antivaccine pages on Facebook, marks a major escalation in the effort to get rid of antivaccine misinformation. Time will tell how serious Facebook is and how effective its measures to purge such misinformation from its platform will be.