It’s been a week since Facebook announced a ban on ads “that discourage people from getting a vaccine,” a move that elicited widespread praise as the coronavirus death toll soars. “We don’t want these ads on our platform,” the social media giant declared.
But Facebook has quietly continued to run anti-vaccination ads — including new ones that launched days after its policy change.
As of Tuesday morning, the alternative medicine company Earthley had more than a dozen active ads on Facebook criticizing vaccines, and in several cases, spreading misinformation. Earthley makes money by selling supposed vaccine alternatives, such as the “elderberry elixir” it promotes on Facebook.
“Ever wondered why your child needs 5+ [Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis] shots? It’s because it isn’t working,” claims one Earthley ad, which contradicts data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Another ad suggests vaccines cause autism or neurological injury, a myth that medical authorities have repeatedly debunked. Other ads feature images of scared-looking children and their mothers — and question the effectiveness of not only vaccines but also the CDC-recommended practices of social distancing and wearing face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“THE PEOPLE THAT PROFIT WHEN YOU’RE SICK WILL NOT SELL YOU THE CURE,” reads an Earthley Facebook ad image beneath the caption, “We all know that this fall they are going to be pushing vaccines and masks like crazy!”
Vaccines are rigorously tested and have been deemed safe by an abundance of independent studies. Public health experts stress that a coronavirus vaccine, once it’s available, will be vital for ending the pandemic and preventing more deaths. Yet more than 1 in 3 Americans say they won’t take it, according to a Gallup poll — underscoring the harm caused by anti-vaccine propaganda advertised on the world’s biggest social media platform.
Facebook’s new policy applies only to ads; other anti-vaccine content is still allowed and continues to flourish on the platform through posts and groups. But even the minimal effort of restricting ads — which can be selectively targeted and can reach far bigger audiences than organic content — is, so far, failing.
Earthley’s anti-vaccine ads demonstrate Facebook’s jarring inability or unwillingness to enforce its own policies.
After the ad policy announcement last Tuesday, HuffPost drew attention in a tweet to two of the many anti-vaccine ads from Earthley that remained active on the platform. Facebook executive Rob Leathern tweeted in response that enforcement would be “rolling” over the remainder of last week, and Facebook removed those two ads. Yet Earthley was still able to run other old and new anti-vax ads into this week without issue.
Kate Tietje, Earthley’s lead herbalist, told HuffPost that she believes her company’s ads comply with Facebook rules.
“It is our understanding that Facebook is banning ads that actively tell people not to get a vaccine,” said Tietje. “We do not tell our audience what choice to make; we aim to provide links to peer-reviewed studies so that people can make informed decisions for themselves. We do not think this violates Facebook’s policy, nor should it.”
Facebook has long been aware of controversy surrounding health claims from Earthley, which recently received a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration for selling “unapproved and misbranded” products to prevent COVID-19. BuzzFeed News reported in January that the alternative medicine company was pushing falsehoods about the whooping cough vaccine in its Facebook ads — seemingly in violation of the platform’s already-existing policy prohibiting misinformation in ads. Facebook declined at the time to take any action.
Along with the new anti-vax ad ban, Facebook also announced a campaign to provide authoritative information about the flu vaccine and committed to “help messages about the safety and efficacy of vaccines reach a broad group of people.”
But despite its many claims that it is taking public health concerns seriously, Facebook is still a major driving force in rising anti-vaccine sentiment.
Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have burgeoned on Facebook, including the absurd claim that billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates will somehow microchip people through a forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine to exert mind control. Facebook-owned Instagram is also rife with anti-vaccine misinformation, which the platform continues to algorithmically promote more than a year and a half after vowing to reduce the spread of such content. And massive anti-vax groups, where people regularly exchange natural home remedies in lieu of doctor-recommended treatments for various ailments, are thriving on Facebook.
Earlier this year, a mother turned to a 178,000-member anti-vax Facebook group for advice on caring for her seriously ill 4-year-old son, as NBC News reported. Users there suggested that she try thyme and elderberry, and urged her not to give her son the vaccine that her doctor had prescribed, so she didn’t. The child died.
That Facebook group is still active; it now has more than 200,000 members.
UPDATE: Oct. 21 — Facebook removed most, but not all, of Earthley’s anti-vaccine ads on Wednesday.
“We have rejected several of these ads because they discourage vaccines and spread vaccine misinformation,” a Facebook spokesperson told HuffPost in an email. “We also remove misinformation about masks, including claims like masks can make you sick or that masks don’t prevent the spread of COVID-19, but we do allow ads that disagree with masks requirements.”
Earthley ads suggesting that the flu vaccine is ineffective are still active on Facebook.