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Over half of all anti-vaccine ads on Facebook stem from just two advertisers

Published on 15/11/19 at 03:10pm

A new study has revealed that the largest share of anti-vaccine advertisements on Facebook originate from just two organisations, both of whom are well known for their anti-vaccine stance.

The two parties, the World Mercury Project chaired by Robert F Kennedy Jr, and Stop Mandatory Vaccination, headed by activist Larry Cook, accounted for 54% of such Facebook ads between 13 December 2018 and 22 February 2019.

The study, published in [Vaccine], is the first of its kind to shine a light on anti-vaccine advertisements within Facebook’s advertising archive, a database that the company has made available in the name of transparency following criticism it had not acted enough to stem the spread of untraceable misinformation on its platform. Within the database, users can view all active ads running across Facebook-affiliated products.

309 ads were analysed in detail by researchers at George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. The findings of the research revealed that, of the ads reviewed, 163 were pro-vaccine, while 145 were anti-vaccine. While there was a greater number of pro-vaccine ads during the study period, they came from 83 unique sources, compared to just two parties generating more than half of the anti-vaccine content. As the study put it, “the median number of ads per buyer was significantly higher for anti-vaccine ads.”

It was noted that pro-vaccine ads tended to be more diverse in the themes or goals they approached, in line with their diverse origin, with 49% promoting vaccination, 15% promoting vaccine-related philanthropy, and 14% discussing vaccine-related policy.

Conversely, the researchers found that anti-vaccine ads tended to be more uniform, with 55% focusing on the perceived harms that vaccines can cause. These ads generally reached more users – between 5,000 and 50,000 people – with higher budgets – up to $499 per ad, and often linked to alternative treatments to vaccination such as “natural” remedies, books or seminars.  

The study even found evidence that pro-vaccine content was being penalised as a result of Facebook’s new transparency rules and algorithms.

“A small set of anti-vaccine advertisement buyers have leveraged Facebook advertisements to reach targeted audiences. By deeming all vaccine-related content an issue of “national importance,” Facebook has further politicised vaccines. The implementation of a blanket disclosure policy also limits which ads can successfully run on Facebook. Improving transparency and limiting misinformation should not be separate goals. Public health communication efforts should consider the potential impact on Facebook users’ vaccine attitudes and behaviours.”

Matt Fellows

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