It’s 2019 and the United States is facing yet another measles outbreak easily preventable by modern medicine. Thanks to the free marketplace of ill-informed ideas, some parents continue to refuse to get their children vaccinated based on shit the read on the internet. Twitter, after being called out repeatedly as enablers of the anti-vax movement, have finally chosen to combat the conspiracies.
In a blog post last week, Twitter’s vice president of the trust and safety team Del Harvey announced the platform will be introducing new search tools set to help users find credible resources about vaccines and will stop auto-suggesting search terms leading users down misinformation rabbit holes.
“At Twitter,” Harvey writes, “we understand the importance of vaccines in preventing illness and disease and recognize the role that Twitter plays in disseminating important public health information. We think it’s important to help people find reliable information that enhances their health and well-being.”
“We recently launched a new tool so when someone searches for certain keywords associated with vaccines, a prompt will direct individuals to a credible public health resource,” she continues. “In the United States, we partnered with the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and point people to vaccines.gov. The new search prompt is available on iOS, Android, and mobile.twitter.com in the United States (in English and Spanish), Canada (in English and French), UK, Brazil, Korea, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore, and in Spanish-speaking Latin American countries. If you search on twitter.com, there’s a pinned Tweet with information from trusted partners.”
The Verge reports that Twitter has used similar tools to prompt safer searches for terms related to suicide in order to help users get into contact with a help hotline.
Twitter’s blog post also explains how the company intends to extend this tool to other health-related search terms in the future, though failed to explain which areas in particular. “This new investment builds on our existing work to guard against the artificial amplification of non-credible content about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines,” the blog concludes.
The decision follows numerous Congressional hearings on the spread of misinformation after the CDC confirmed there were between 206 to 839 individual cases of measles across 11 states. The report claims there are currently six active outbreaks, “defined as a cluster of three or more incidents”, and these areas include California, Oregon, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, New Jersey, New York and Texas. (Note: all of these numbers have since been increased) Almost every single case was due to a lack of vaccinations.
“Diseases aren’t stopped by borders, or walls or bans,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) during her one of most recent opening statements. “They are stopped by doctors and nurses, by vaccines and public health awareness.” During this same hearing, Ethan Lindenberger, an Ohio high school senior, gave a speech to the committee hearing on how social media misinformation, specifically citing Facebook and Twitter, was central to the anti-vaccine movement which almost cost his life.
“For my mother, her love and affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress. And these sources, which spread misinformation, should be the primary concern of the American people,” Lindenberger said. “My mother would turn to social media groups and not to factual sources like the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]. It is with love and respect that I disagree with my mom.” When asked where he received his information about vaccinations, Lindenberger simply responded: “Not Facebook.”
This predatory use of paranoia, mysticism and government animosity, enabled by a “free marketplace” where snake oil can make a pretty penny, contributes to current anti-vaccine thinking not just plaguing America but much of the developed world. However, the U.S. rationale decidedly stems from a deceptive argument surrounding liberty, shown in Politico’s citing of Thomas Olmstead, an anti-vax parent, who called a recent vaccine requirement bill “a step toward the complete erosion of our medical freedom.”
This way of thinking is a distortion of the ideal that citizens are entitled the “freedom to choose” on behalf their children, as the freedom to live how one wants is unable to be afforded to those no longer living as a result of ignoring these proven protective measures. Twitter, through allowing an open exchange to choose your life-or-death facts, decided it entertained loonies for far too long. Following behind the likes of Pinterest, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, united in their outright restrictions on vaccine snake-oil campaigns, Twitter’s actions are admirable, though remain inconsistent in their implementation.
As reported by Poynter and associate Alexios Mantzarlis, these safe search messages failed to show up on the browser version of the website in Indonesia, presented the message in Spanish when using the site in Italian, and didn’t appear on the desktop or mobile versions in Mexico, Argentina, Japan. It remains a near Western-focused, English-speaking plan for those based within the United Kingdom, Brazil and the U.S. The bugs can easily be fixed with hotfixes overnight, but to only curb the movement in countries where the media focuses attention and rely on government sources to somehow convince anti-government loonies does strike as inept.
This isn’t to say Twitter intentionally supports the harm derived from the anti-vax movement, but rather the ignorance of their inaction remains a problem. It’s hard to combat misinformation when you’re dealing with a centralized force with too many voices to curb, not enough accountable gatekeepers or knowledge of the space they’re maintaining. These are inherent to the big tech structures of today, and if CEO Jack Dorsey wants to live up to his promise of facilitating an echo-free platform, Twitter once again needs to innovate by looking to decentralize itself and its sources instead of putting simple overnight bandaids on such large, open wounds.