Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) is trashing Facebook and Twitter’s response to the harassment of pregnant women on their platforms, calling it “out-of-date, worn-out, and woefully inadequate.”
“Vague content moderation policies, ineffective fact checking, inconsistent enforcement, and meaningless labels are cold comfort to the women continuously assailed by vile anti-vaccine hate and life-threatening falsehoods,” the senator said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
Blumenthal sent letters to both Facebook and Twitter last month in response to a Daily Beast report that found women who had miscarriages after receiving the COVID-19 vaccine were being targeted and harassed by anti-vaxxers on social media.
Much of the harassment was coordinated on Facebook and Instagram pages and played out on Twitter. In response, Blumenthal sent letters to both Twitter and Facebook (which owns Instagram), asking how they planned to address the issue.
Both companies responded by citing their COVID-19 misinformation policies, such as the ability to remove misleading information about the vaccines, and highlighted general policies against bullying and harassment. But neither specifically addressed the targeting of pregnant women. Accounts that The Daily Beast identified as spreading vaccine misinformation, like the Instagram page cv19vaccinereactions, remained live.
In his statement, Blumenthal said he saw “little in their responses that demonstrates these profitable and powerful companies are going to stop treating victims of this abuse like an afterthought.”
The Daily Beast previously covered the story of Candice Cody, an anesthesiologist and former Survivor contestant, who tweeted about getting the vaccine while pregnant in December and was subjected to a deluge of hateful tweets and Facebook messages from anti-vaxxers. Another doctor received tweets telling her she “got what she deserved” and asking if she could be criminally charged when she miscarried shortly after receiving the vaccine.
Anti-vaxxers also targeted Instagram influencer Michelle Rockwell for miscarrying after receiving the vaccine, despite the fact that she had lost her pregnancy weeks earlier.
“It was heartbreaking. I definitely shed some tears over it,” Rockwell told The Daily Beast at the time. “To attack women who’ve gone through so much, that’s just a new low.”
Both Facebook and Twitter told Blumenthal they had expanded the list of false and misleading claims they would remove from their websites to include previously debunked claims about COVID-19 and the vaccines. Facebook noted that groups, pages, and accounts that repeatedly share these claims may be permanently removed. Twitter said it had removed more than 8,493 tweets and challenged at least 11.5 million accounts that were targeting discussions around COVID-19 with “potentially manipulative behaviors.”
Both companies also said they would remove “abusive” content, which Facebook said included “female-gendered cursing terms when used in a derogatory way,” as well as content that “praises, celebrates, or mocks their death or serious physical injury.”
The response does not seem to have slowed the spread of the cv19vaccinereactions page, which regularly disseminates stories about vaccine reactions without proper context to its 146,000 followers. One of the Facebook pages where members spread false information about Rockwell is also still live, as are dozens of comments targeting the doctor who miscarried after receiving the vaccine.
Blumenthal has previously called on the social media giants to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation, saying in a Feb. 19 press release that they had moved “far too slow” in response to reports of harassment and the spread of conspiracy theories.
“Health officials across the country are vigilantly working to reassure the public that vaccines are safe and to achieve widespread immunity to save lives,” he said at the time. “Each piece of misinformation, each person bullied for doing the right thing, is a setback in our effort to end this costly pandemic.”