On Wednesday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before the House Financial Services Committee to allay concerns about Libra, the cryptocurrency that the company hopes to launch as a global payments system. However, many members of Congress clearly had other axes to grind with the tech giant, pushing Zuckerberg on the Cambridge Analytica scandal, child exploitation on the platform, and election interference. One of the most bizarre digressions during the hearing, though, had to do with vaccines. Rep. Bill Posey, a Florida Republican, used his five minutes to implore Zuckerberg to allow vaccine critics to air their opinions on Facebook in light of the CEO’s recent proclamations about free speech on the platform. A clip of the exchange is below:
Though Posey has insisted that he is “pro-vaccine,” he has a history of promoting the anti-vaccine movement. He’s been supportive of prominent anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and peddled conspiracy theories that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tried to cover up studies proving a link between vaccines and autism. He’s misrepresented the Vaccine Injury Trust Fund, a popular hobby horse among vaccine conspiracy theorists, insisting that its payments to people who claim to have been harmed by vaccines proves that they’re dangerous. (Around 70 percent of the payments were for cases in which the government did not conclude that there was any actual vaccine harm.) What’s more, Posey has repeatedly promoted these vaccine conspiracy theories on his Facebook pages.
Slate found more than two dozen posts on Posey’s congressional, public figure, and campaign pages promoting vaccine skepticism and misinformation. In fact, Posey’s official page shared a post while the hearing was still in session that applauded him for challenging Zuckerberg and pushed the theory about the Vaccine Injury Trust Fund. In other cases, Posey has shared links to websites that falsely establish a relationship between autism and vaccines, such as Age of Autism and Truth in Media, and pages for anti-vax organizations such as the Children’s Health Defense and Texans for Vaccine Choice.* The congressman also posted a link to a petition pressing Congress to hold hearings on “CDC Fraudulent Pediatric Vaccine Research” and shared news that Robert De Niro had defended the screening of an anti-vax documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival with a caption that further pushes the Vaccine Injury Trust Fund conspiracy theory. (Posey did not post that De Niro eventually decided to pull the documentary from the festival.) He advertised the documentary in another post. Posey also, at times, shares YouTube links to speeches he’s given on vaccines in Congress, and pictures featuring antivax figures with hashtags like #TheTruthAboutVaccines.
Posey’s public figure page in fact has a picture album labeled “Autism” that contains a link to Age of Autism, an anti-vaccine “daily web newspaper.”
A congressman like Posey is a conundrum for Facebook, because the company has been aggressive in tamping down on vaccine misinformation, especially concerning dubious claims of autism links that could convince parents not to vaccinate their children against diseases. In response to Posey’s question during the hearing, Zuckerberg said, “We try to focus on misinformation that has the potential to lead to physical harm or imminent harm, and that can include especially misleading health advice.” In March, the company announced that it would take a series of steps to stem the spread of vaccine misinformation on Facebook and Instagram, such as rejecting false ads about vaccines, demoting pages and posts that promote dubious vaccine claims in news feed and search rankings, and in some cases removing access to fundraising tools for those pages. In September, the company debuted pop-up windows and headers directing people who stumble upon anti-vaccine pages to instead check out CDC and World Health Organization websites containing accurate information on the matter. Rather than removing this false content, Facebook instead opts to curb it.
Last Thursday, Zuckerberg gave what he purported to be his “most comprehensive take” on free speech at Georgetown University. In his address, the CEO presented himself as a champion of free expression and declared that Facebook should not be picking and choosing who can have a voice on the platform. Zuckerberg’s sermon was partly in response to criticisms that Facebook has received for refusing to remove ads from the Donald Trump campaign that made false accusations about Joe Biden’s activities in Ukraine. The company maintained that politicians are exempt from the platform’s third-party fact-checking program and its policies on false ads. Zuckerberg defended the move during Wednesday’s hearing by arguing, “We believe that in a democracy it is important that people can see for themselves what politicians are saying.”
How would Facebook handle a politician like Posey, who spreads misinformation about vaccines? Shortly after Zuckerberg’s exchange with the congressman, the Atlantic asked Facebook whether it would allow a politician to run false ads about vaccines. Facebook responded that it would not run the ad through its fact-checking program, but that it would be subject to the same restrictions that are placed on other ads from civilians. The company’s policies specifically ban ads containing vaccine misinformation, so this was all just a long way of saying that the ad would be rejected. Facebook’s vice president of global affairs and communications, Nick Clegg, has also noted that the company will not run an ad that “endangers people,” even if it’s coming from a politician. Though the company might make speech exceptions for politicians, it won’t go as far as to allow them to spread misinformation about vaccines or other health issues.
But what about posts from a politician containing vaccine conspiracy theories that aren’t ads?
A Facebook spokesperson told Slate that speech by politicians does fall under its vaccine misinformation regulations. If a politician repeatedly posts debunked information, Facebook will reduce the distribution of those posts by removing them from search recommendations and ranking them lower in the news feed. The spokesperson did not comment when asked whether these actions had been taken against Posey.
Posey’s pages, however, do seem to be escaping at least some of the sanctions that Facebook normally places on vaccine misinformation pages. None of his pages or individual posts has the pop-up windows or headers linking to accurate vaccine information from the WHO or CDC. These warning do show up on pages for the Children’s Heath Defense and Texans for Vaccine Choice, both of which Posey has promoted on his timeline. His pages also continue to show up in search recommendations. At least as of Wednesday night, Posey is free to say what he wants about vaccines on Facebook, just as he is in a congressional hearing to Facebook’s CEO.
Correction, Oct. 24, 2019: An earlier version of this article misstated that one of the anti-vax organizations that Rep. Bill Posey promoted was the Children’s Defense Fund. It’s Children’s Health Defense.