Facebook faces a fresh complaint by anti-vaxxer advocates. They say that the platform censors them illegally by adding fact-check stickers on messages that provide misleading facts on vaccinations.
In Northern California, Monday, Children’s Health Defense led by prominent anti-vaccine advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. filed a lawsuit against Facebook.
The lawsuit charges Facebook of violating First Amendment — a provision that extends solely to federal agencies and not private companies. Nevertheless, the plaintiffs argue that because Facebook integrated CDC guidelines into its fact-check stickers, the government has “privatize[d] Facebook’s position as a public censor.”
Facebook’s biggest anti-vaxxer
Kennedy Jr, though CHD and World Mercury Initiative group, was responsible for more than half of Facebook’s anti-vaccine ads. That ended in 2019 amid a measles outbreak. The Centers for Disease Control and lawmakers pressured Facebook to update its policies.
The fact-checking actions carried out by Facebook both violate CHD’s rights and are defamatory, the group claims. The legitimacy of the company “depends on the quality of its science-based study publications,” the complaint notes. CHD argues “that discuss both the documented and potentially unknown dangers of [vaccine] and 5G and cellular technologies to public safety.”
The 115-page lawsuit claims that Facebook’s conduct leads to bullying and slander against the anti-vaxxer groups. The record said CHD does not enjoy seeing the posts pointed out as propaganda.
The suit complained that Facebook’s ‘integrated WHO and CDC concepts of ‘vaccine hoax’ into the algorithms and machine learning classified the material of CHD. It added these posts were often flagged because it is critical of those same agencies as ‘biased,’ ‘unreliable,’ and ‘out-of-date.'”
For years, anti-vaxxer advocates relied on social media like Facebook to spread false theories about junk science-based vaccines. According to a survey by The Atlantic, most anti-vaccine content on Facebook originates from a handful of fringe sources.
In 2019, Facebook began cracking down on misinformation shared by anti-vaxxer advocates. The social media giant prevents news from being advertised by advertising and downplaying it in search results. Facebook also allows for the sharing of anti-vax posts, but now adds a fact-check alert mark with a description for specialist organizations vaccinations.
Working as intended?
Such activities “have already hurt” CHD, the anti-vaxxer group argues. It explained that the moves would have the consequence of further harming CHD by undermining its business image and credibility. Those of its writers, diverting traffic from its web and thereby curtailing its profits and donations.
If Facebook’s acts had only rejected CHD’s anti-vaccine material, as the suit claims, redirected focus away, its mechanisms function as planned. But CHD cited a strong ally in its lawsuit against those systems: the White House.
President Donald Trump signed an executive order in May that “[prevents] online censorship.” Though potentially wholly unenforceable, the directive called for authorities to prohibit social networking companies, including Twitter, from “seeking to stifle views in which they differ.”
Historically, though, it’s been challenging for Facebook to walk the line and distinguish “reality” from “opinion” in its evidence-checking process — especially when someone with an audience cries “bias.”