Facebook will downrank anti-vax content on News Feed and hide it on Instagram

After indicating that it was exploring its options for fighting the potentially deadly rise of anti-vaccination content on its platform last month, Facebook is making a plan of attack.

Facebook’s strategy in the effort is to both minimize the spread of vaccination misinformation and to point users away from inaccurate anti-vaccination propaganda and toward “authoritative information,” i.e. info corroborated by the health and scientific establishment.

To achieve a reduction in the spread of anti-vax propaganda, Facebook will downrank groups and pages that spread this kind of content across both News Feed and its search function. Facebook will also reject ads promoting anti-vaccination misinformation. Repeat offenders attempting to promote this content through ads may see their accounts disabled. On Instagram, Facebook “won’t show or recommend content that contains misinformation about vaccinations on Instagram Explore or hashtag pages,” effectively burying that content from public-facing spaces. Facebook noted that it would also remove anti-vax adjacent ad targeting descriptors including the term “vaccine controversies.”

Facebook’s role in the rise of anti-vaccination or “anti-vax” conspiracy theories came into the spotlight last month. In light of reporting pointing to the responsibility of Facebook and YouTube in spreading this particularly dangerous form of misinformation, prominent California Rep. Adam Schiff wrote to the two companies demanding “additional information on the steps that you currently take to provide medically accurate information on vaccinations to your users.”

Last month, Bloomberg reported that Facebook was “exploring additional measures to best combat the problem,” including “reducing or removing this type of content from recommendations, including Groups You Should Join, and demoting it in search results, while also ensuring that higher quality and more authoritative information is available.”

Like other dangerous forms of online disinformation, the prevalence of anti-vax content has destructive real-world implications. The U.S. is currently experiencing an outbreak of measles, an entirely preventable infectious disease that is threatening the health of children and vulnerable populations and creating broad school closures in places like Clark County, Wash.

When Facebook directs its attention toward reducing the public spread of a particular strain of conspiracy theory or otherwise pernicious content, it tends to do a pretty thorough job. The problem of course is that such efforts from Facebook and other major tech platforms remain reactionary rather than proactive, meaning that Facebook’s next major outbreak of harmful, even deadly algorithmically fueled disinformation is likely just around the corner.