Instagram blocks #VaccinesKill, reviewing other anti-vaccine hashtags

Instagram this week blocked the hashtag #VaccinesKill amid its crackdown on vaccine-related misinformation, and it says it is looking into other hashtags typically used to promote false information about vaccines. 

The Facebook-owned social media network had previously declined to block the #VaccinesKill hashtag, a popular gathering place for anti-vaccine activists on Instagram, arguing that the phrase “vaccines kill” did not count as medical misinformation. An Instagram spokesperson in an email to The Hill last month claimed there have been rare instances in which vaccine side effects have caused death. 

{mosads}But under pressure this week following a CNN Business report on the medical misinformation amplified under #VaccinesKill, Instagram blocked the hashtag and said it is expanding its crackdown on medical misinformation to include hashtags that are often used to promote debunked anti-vaccine sentiments.

Instagram, under enormous scrutiny from lawmakers and public health experts, has been engaged in an ongoing effort to remove a scourge of anti-vaccine misinformation that has spread across its platform. 

The platform began taking action amid the largest measles outbreak the U.S. has seen since it eradicated the disease 19 years ago, a health crisis caused in part by the rise of the so-called anti-vax movement of people who refuse to vaccine themselves or their children due to untrue conspiracy theories about the side effects of vaccines.  

Phase one of the crackdown involved removing hashtags promoting overt medical misinformation about vaccines — such as #VaccinesCauseAutism or #VaccinesCauseAIDs, both of which have been debunked by leading public health organizations. 

Now, Instagram says it is looking to block hashtags that surface content promoting verifiably false vaccine misinformation. This means it will block any hashtag — including something innocuous like #Vaccines1234 — if it contains a high volume of vaccine misinformation.

Instagram will also begin showing a limited number of posts associated with hashtags that promote a lower percentage of health-related misinformation. 

The platform is also developing a “pop-up” that would appear on content containing vaccine-related misinformation. 

The top results when a user types “vaccine” into Instagram still pull up a significant amount of anti-vax content, on accounts including “Vaccinesuncovered” and “vaccinetruth.” 

Instagram has said it is not seeking to crack down on the anti-vax movement. A spokesperson said the platform is not taking action against users who have opinions on vaccines, but rather those who promote misinformation or content that could endanger others. 

There have been at least 764 cases of measles reported in the country this year, more than double the total number of cases from last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The anti-vax movement largely congregates online, and lawmakers including Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) have put the onus on the social media companies to deal with the online misinformation with real-world consequences. 

Tags Adam Schiff Anti-vax movement Facebook Health care Instagram Vaccines

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