The majority of Facebook ads that leak false information about vaccines are funded by two organizations run by well-known anti-vaccine activists, according to a new study in the journal Vaccine.
The World Mercury Project, chaired by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, a project of activist Larry Cook, purchased 54% of the anti-vaccine ads shown on the platform during the investigation period.
"Absolutely surprised," said David Broniatowski, professor of engineering at George Washington University, one of the authors of the report. "These two people generated most of the content."
Cook uses crowdfunding platforms to raise money for Facebook ads and his personal expenses. The crowdfunding platform GoFundMe banned Cook's fundraising efforts in March 2019. YouTube has demonized Cook's videos.
Kennedy is the son of former US Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. He also has a non-profit organization that deals with environmental issues. Kennedy's brother, sister, and niece publicly criticized his "dangerous misinformation" about vaccines in May. They called his work against vaccinations "tragically wrong".
In fact, vaccines are one of the safest and most effective medical interventions ever developed.
The Vaccine Journal Study is the first to analyze vaccine advertising in Facebook Ads Archive. The archive is an advertising disclosure database created by Facebook after the platform was criticized during the Brexit referendum and the 2016 US presidential campaign for disseminating unreasonable misinformation, the study said. In 2019, the World Health Organization cited vaccine reluctance as one of the world's top ten health threats.
Unlike television, radio or newspapers, Facebook's micro-targeting algorithms have allowed anti-vaccine groups to settle with individuals who may doubt vaccines. In particular, women and parents of toddlers were addressed by Stop Mandatory Vaccination, and Cook was even censored by the British Advertising Standards Authority last year.
"If you are out of the audience, you will not see them." Minnesota Hospital Association spokeswoman Emily Lowther automatically removed Facebook vaccination ads. It's unclear why Facebook removed the ad.
"From an organizational point of view, vaccine information causes real harm to individuals and their communities."  Researchers at George Washington University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland analyzed more than 500 ads that ran between December 2018 and February 2019 when Facebook updated its guidelines for vaccine-targeted ads again. Of the ads, 163 were for vaccine and 145 were for alleged vaccine damage.
While per vaccine reports came from 83 unique healthcare organizations, 54% of vaccine claims came from only two buyers: the organizations led by Kennedy and Cook.
Anti-vaccine ads were also seen by more people and had larger budgets. At up to $ 499 per ad, anti-vaccine ads "routinely reached an audience of between 5,000 and 50,000 people." Often, they also refer to products that people could buy, including "natural" medicines, books, and seminars.
A typical display of Stop Mandatory Vaccinations states: "A healthy 14-week-old child gets 8 vaccines and dies within 24 hours (sic)."
Researchers also said that new Facebook rules that apply to Promoting transparency that penalizes advertising for hospital and healthcare vaccinations.
"Facebook is easy enough to play to figure out what that combination of words will be Let's tag," said Nicholas Marcouiller, a digital strategist at Tunheim who creates ads for the Minnesota Hospitals Association. "We do not adapt our messages to get past them."
Marcouiller said most of the hospital association's ads would automatically be classified as politically sensitive, and social media workers would then have to re-submit them to Facebook for human review. A time consuming process.
"It's not surprising that someone who thinks critically can create an ad that runs on the system," Marcouiller said. "It is a luxury in Minnesota that a hospital association is strong enough to take on this role for our state."
In contrast, anti-vaccination groups are specialists, Broniatowski said. They publish dozens of anti-vaccine ads every year and are well-versed with Facebook's new disclosure requirements.
"Although they spread misinformation, they adhere to the wording of the terms," Broniatowski said. "This is a situation where the letter of the conditions does not match the intention of the conditions."