Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ) is demanding answers from Facebook about anti-vaccination ads in response to a Daily Beast report that found the social network was removing some pro-vaccine ads from hospitals and health departments while allowing a selection of anti-vaxx ads to spread conspiracy theories unimpeded.
Menendez blasted the company on social media Tuesday. He tweeted a link to The Daily Beast story and wrote, “Seriously??? Facebook said it was cracking down on #AntiVax ads, but clearly hasn’t stuck to its word.”
“How many times do we need to repeat it? Vaccines work! Whether it’s an advertisement, a page, or a group, @facebook needs to take action to curb this dangerous misinformation…ASAP,” he added.
The social networking company plans to brief Menendez on the issue, Politico reported.
Facebook instituted stricter policies prohibiting vaccine misinformation on its site in March, but instead of eradicating conspiracy theorists and hucksters, that crackdown appears to be penalizing legitimate healthcare providers. In October, the social network’s ad review flagged and removed 14 ads from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare promoting the agency’s free pediatric vaccination program.
At the same time, the anti-vaxx nonprofit Children's Health Defense ran more than 10 ads promoting medical conspiracy theories like the “MMR Poison Pill,” the idea that the common mumps, measles, and rubella vaccine contains deadly allergens. A Facebook spokesperson called the removal a mistake and said the health department’s ads had been reinstated after an inquiry from The Daily Beast.
The contradiction has frustrated healthcare providers. A spokesperson for the Minnesota Hospital Network, which regularly has ads advocating for vaccination taken down, told The Daily Beast the organization expects to upload ads multiple times because of the “moving target” of Facebook’s advertising policies.
Menendez’s criticism isn’t the first time Facebook has become entangled in vaccine-related controversies. Anti-vaxx groups use the platform to fundraise, recruit new members, and share potentially deadly autism “cures.” Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) berated Mark Zuckerberg in a congressional hearing October 23 about the social network’s stance on vaccine misinformation. Zuckerberg defended the company, citing scientific consensus that vaccines are safe, and Posey accused him of bias.
The United States is in the midst of its worst outbreak of vaccine-preventable diseases in decades and may lose its designation as a nation that has eliminated measles as a result. The World Health Organization named anti-vaccine backlash one of the top 10 threats to global health in 2019.
Facebook and Menendez’s office did not provide comment.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that the anti-vaccination organization that ran the ads is Children's Health Defense—not the Children’s Defense Fund, which is a strong supporter of vaccines for children.