In the year 2019, the United States is facing yet another measles crisis easily preventable by modern medicine. Thanks to the free marketplace of misinformative ideas, irresponsible parents continue to avoid seeing a doctor to get their children’s advised vaccinations based on the untrustworthy word of the internet. Twitter, one of the most controversial enablers of the anti-vax movement, has finally chosen to combat the conspiracies.
In a blog post from 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 also reports 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. The blog post also explains how Twitter 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 once 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. 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 plaguing common Americans. This rationale stems for a deceptive framing behind 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.”
It abuses a concept that citizens are entitled to a “freedom to choose” over their children, entitled to the liberty to live ensured based on 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 remains inconsistent in its implementation.
As reported by Poynter and associate Alexios Mantzarlis, these safe search messages failed to show up on browser version of the website in Indonesia, presented the message in Spanish when using the site in Italian, 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 inactions remains a problem. It’s hard to combat misinformation when you’re dealing with a centralised 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 to his promise of facilitating an echo-free platform, Twitter once again needs to innovate by looking to decentralise itself and its sources instead of putting simple overnight bandaids on such large open wounds.
Thanks for reading! This article was originally published for TrigTent.com, a bipartisan media platform for political and social commentary, truly diverse viewpoints and facts that don’t kowtow to political correctness.
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