The vaccine for whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is currently among the best ways to prevent an illness that kills more than 160,000 people each year, many of them babies. The vaccine is safe and does not cause autism or other neurological disorders. Despite its own rules prohibiting vaccine misinformation in ads, Facebook is hosting ads for an online pamphlet that falsely claims that the life-saving vaccine is unsafe.
One ad reads, “Is the vaccine the best option? And if not, what is?” Another says, “Click below for a FREE guide for Pertussis which will include: Vaccine Controversy.”
A Facebook spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the ads represented “no violation” of its policies. As of today, these ads were still running on both Facebook and Instagram. After publication of this article, Facebook provided the following comment.
"Facebook does not have a policy that bans advertising on the basis that it expresses opposition to vaccines," a Facebook spokesperson said. "Our policy is to ban ads containing vaccine misinformation."
Facebook has recently struggled to enact and enforce its advertising policies, as the site continues to prioritize scale over safety. The Trump campaign was recently found to have placed ads that violated the site’s ban on fake buttons, which make ads appear to be surveys. Facebook’s spokespeople initially seemed confused about whether new rules banning deepfakes would apply to political ads, before later saying that they would. The site has also controversially said it would allow politicians to lie in ads.
The anti-vaccination ads are being run by Earthley, an alternative medicine company based in Ohio and owned by Catherine and Benjamin Tietje. Earthley is an offshoot of the alternative medicine blog Modern Alternative Mama, which has built up a following of more than 70,000 people on Facebook over the past 10 years. The ads, which have been running since Dec. 9, link to a landing page that allows people to download a free PDF on Earthley’s website.
The document falsely claims that the whooping cough vaccine contains levels of the element aluminum that could cause neurological damage, and it offers Earthley products — like elderberry elixir, vitamin C powder, and a mixture of herbs — as an alternative.
Facebook’s advertising policy bans ads with claims that have been “debunked by third-party fact checkers or, in certain circumstances, claims debunked by organizations with particular expertise.” The policy specifically cites false claims about vaccines. “When we find ads that include misinformation about vaccinations, we will reject them,” Facebook’s policy reads.
“We tackle vaccine misinformation on Facebook and Instagram by reducing its distribution and connecting people with authoritative information from experts on the topic,” a Facebook spokesperson said. “We partner with leading public health organizations, such as the World Health Organization, which has publicly identified vaccine hoaxes — if these hoaxes appear on Facebook, we will take action against them — including rejecting ads.”
Earthley’s customer service account, which is run by the Tietjes, said in an email that Earthley doesn’t believe its ads violated Facebook’s policies.
“We’re aware that Facebook doesn’t like information that questions the vaccine paradigm in any way,” it said. “It is up to Facebook to properly review ads and choose to reject the ones it does not want on its platform.”
Peter Hotez, a professor of pediatrics and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News that the content advertised on Facebook was dangerous.
“The vaccine is safe, it does not cause autism, does not cause all the other things that they talk about. It’s highly protective, and could save your child’s life,” Hotez said. “I’m not aware of any evidence that suggests all the other things that were brought up in this person’s article — about organic herbs, dandelion roots, organic vegetable glycerin, cinnamon — having any impact on pertussis.”
Earthley and Modern Alternative Mama not only disseminate anti-vaccination misinformation in advertisements, but also frequently post unpaid anti-vaccination content on their public Facebook and Instagram accounts.
There are several ways to work around Facebook’s restrictions on anti-vaccination ads. For instance, although blatantly misleading hashtags like #vaccineskill are blocked on Instagram, people use hashtags like #vaççineskillandinjure, or cryptic hashtags #readaninsert, which refers to a grassroots campaign to spread paper inserts and pamphlets that promote vaccine misinformation.
Facebook declined to comment on how it identifies or moderates hashtags like these.
Some people include Linktree links in their Instagram bios, which, if clicked, bring users to a custom page with multiple links. Sometimes, Linktree is used to direct people to websites that include even more misinformation about vaccines.
Linktree is sometimes used by Earthley affiliates in order to promote the company’s products. For instance, several people have Linktree links in their bios that include a link to Earthley's product listing for $4 “Vaccine Education Cards.” These cards falsely claim, among other things, that "Aluminum adjuvants in some vaccines are tied to neurological damage, autism, learning disabilities, and more."
Facebook did not comment on how it identifies or moderates misinformation link-sharing in profile bios.
The Affiliate Program page on Earthley’s website links to a private Facebook group called “Earthologists.” The group, which has over 800 members, says that it can "teach you how to make an income from home without the pressure that comes with a typical MLM or direct sales opportunity."
Facebook doesn’t prohibit people from promoting anti-vaccination content in private Facebook groups.
“If someone wants to post anti-vaccination content, or if they want to join a group where people are discussing that content, we don’t prevent them from doing that,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said. “But we don’t go out of our way to make sure our group recommendation systems try to encourage people to join those groups.”
“Even after congressional hearings were held about the return of measles last spring, I met with both committees — the Senate Committee and the House Oversight Subcommittee,” Hotez said, “and basically [they] say neither Facebook, or Amazon, or Instagram has really made a good faith effort to take down anti-vaccine content.”
This article has been updated to reflect additional comment from Facebook.