Pressure has accumulated onto the billion-dollar social media platform. Mark Zuckerberg’s company faces a crossroads as content that promotes refusing or reducing vaccinations is finding a louder voice in advertisements across Facebook. After other platforms including YouTube and Pinterest took steps to reduce the presence of this content, eyes are turning to Facebook to follow suit.
Although there have been voices opposing vaccines or some aspect of vaccinations for years, the growth of anti-vax content on social media has been a more recent development. Although Facebook is being hammered for harboring this content, it does not necessarily mean that Facebook is in favor of the anti-vax movement. The movements that are gaining traction on Facebook, like anti-vax, are those that make the most money for the company.
“Facebook and all other companies whose revenue comes mostly from advertisers are motivated to get their users to ‘engage’ as often as possible with that site,” said Associate Professor of Philosophy Vance Ricks. ‘Engagement’ usually means that you’re spending time there and doing things there (e.g., ‘liking’, posting, commenting, seeing ads, clicking on those ads). So, in general, that model presumes that whatever it is that’s getting you to ‘engage’ – no matter how true, false, upsetting, calming, hilarious, or stupid it might be – will make you more likely to comment on it yourself.”
Facebook knows that there is a pattern to the ads that generate the most revenue. These ads are the ones that generate conversation, and the more heated the debate, the more popular the ad is.
“The things that lots of your friends are talking about to each other. even if they’re talking about those things negatively, will be the things that they’re more likely to talk about with you, too. And they’re the things that you’re more likely to look into, or explore, or try, or believe because, in general, we trust our friends’ good will and judgement,” Ricks said. “Even if we don’t, we don’t want to feel shut out from the conversations that our friends and family are having. Maybe we’re eager to correct them, to scold them or to be corrected and scolded by them!”
Ethical or not, Facebook’s decisions of which content it selects have significant ramifications. The fact that the content has an extremely popular platform to spread means that anti-vax ideas will reach millions of people worldwide. Public health is one of the most significant factors dependent on the number of people who vaccinate.
“If there continues to be a growing trend where children are not receiving routine vaccinations, over time we will likely lose herd immunity.” said Public Health Instructor and Friends Center staff member Aleks Babić. “Herd immunity means that enough individuals in the population are vaccinated against preventable illnesses so that they are unable to contract those disease and therefore unable to spread them to others who are not able to receive the same vaccinations.
“Research published by the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that not only does an increase in the unvaccinated population put unvaccinated individuals at risk, it also increases the risk of preventable disease among those who have been vaccinated due to their likelihood of exposure. The literature explains this as ‘waning immunity’.”
Guilford students also expressed their opinions on the increase in anti-vax advertisements.
“I think anti-vax content is dangerous because it helps perpetuate the idea that vaccinations aren’t necessary,” said senior Finn Shepard. “When people see anti-vax content and they have the same sentiments, it shows them that their ideas might have some strength.”
“I think Facebook has a lot of this content because it’s a topic of conversation right now and they want to be a part of it, and have people come to their website as often as possible,” said junior Shayne Kenny. “But there is a lot of misleading information on there.”
In the end, the decision is up to Facebook. It can sacrifice its profit and end the controversy, or stay the course and deal with the ramifications.