In 2019 the World Health Organization declared vaccine hesitancy a top-ten threat to global health; number three was a global influenza pandemic. A few short years later, we are challenged by an ongoing global pandemic — COVID-19 — and a vaccine rollout to counter it has just begun. In today’s environment, hesitancy is not unexpected: this is a new vaccine. However, public perception of the safety and efficacy of the vaccine is critical to determining public uptake. Misinformation has the potential to cloud accurate understanding of both facts and risks. At the onset of the vaccine rollout in the US, social media platforms are playing a key role in shaping public perceptions and behaviors.
Anti-vaccine sentiment has been around for as long as we’ve had vaccines, and vaccine misinformation on social platforms has been a longstanding public health communication challenge that predates COVID-19. But beginning in December 2020, platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube updated their policies around harmful misinformation about COVID-19 to include misinformation specific to the COVID-19 vaccine. On February 8, 2021, at the recommendation of the Facebook Oversight Board, Facebook announced it would expand the list of false vaccine-related claims that it would remove from its platform; on February 10, 2021, several high-profile anti-vaccine activist accounts were taken down. This update takes a stricter approach to health misinformation than Facebook has in the past, and has sparked a discussion about the best approach to addressing vaccine-related content. Facebook’s policy updates are the most recent in a long and slow evolution of social media platforms developing more stringent policies around vaccine misinformation.
This first blog post from the team at the Virality Project is a review of vaccine-related policies across nine different platforms. It looks at both general as well as COVID-19-specific vaccine policies to understand the current policy landscape that will ultimately impact the narratives that reach social media audiences. We evaluate these policies based on four core categories of vaccine-related content: 1) safety of vaccines; 2) vaccine efficacy and necessity; 3) vaccine development and distribution; and 4) conspiracy claims about the vaccine. We also address Facebook’s recent policy update and discuss the tradeoffs and nuances surrounding policy interventions on false and misleading narratives related to public health.