Local health experts respond to Pinterest’s ban on vaccination-related searches

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Type in “vaccines” or “vaccinations” in your Pinterest search browser and you’ll get this message: “Sorry, we couldn’t find any Pins for this search.” That’s because the social media company banned all vaccination-related content from its site in an effort to curb the spread of misinformation.

The move renewed the debate not only on vaccinations, but also on censorship. Social media websites have faced scrutiny recently for their attempts to “control the conversation.” Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey testified in a Congressional hearing in September of 2018, answering to accusations of political censorship and mishandling the regulation of hate speech. Both Dorsey and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg also testified in a separate congressional hearing regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Pinterest’s recent content ban has been lauded by public health advocates as a step in the right direction, citing the danger in spreading misinformation about vaccines that prevent debilitating and deadly disease. Anti-vaxxers vehemently oppose the move, however, claiming it’s a way for tech giants to police their views and beliefs. Still others say it’s indicative of a broader issue – if social media companies can ban and regulate certain content, where do we draw the line? Who should decide what types of information the public has access to?

Rosemary Anthony, Community & Public Health Education Coordinator at Corning Community College said it’s up to individuals to educate themselves by seeking out reputable sources in order to make informed decisions. 

“I think the Internet has no responsibility,” Anthony said. “I think individuals have the responsibility to be informed[…] I think it’s our job to know what’s out there.”

She said Pinterest missed the mark in its recent search ban by declining to offer any information; she suggested the website to even redirect users to a reliable source, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“I think that’s where they failed in terms of reaching their goal which was ‘preventing misinformation,’ because they’re not really helping give people correct information,” Anthony said.

Anthony also pointed out what social media is, and what it is not: it is a place for discussion and dialogue, but it is not a place for diagnosis. In her words, it’s “social media, not medical media.”

This notion was echoed by Dr. Justin Nistico, D.O., who specializes in infectious disease at Arnot Health. 

“They [social media] don’t always have all the facts presented at once and it could be overwhelming because there’s a lot of information out there,” Dr. Nistico said. “I’d always say to defer to your provider.”

Anthony said she has a litmus test for discerning if a source is reliable or not. First, she determines whether or not it’s fact or opinion. If it’s opinion, she decides whether it’s “fact-informed opinion.”

“Something that’s super extreme, something that’s opposite of what I have learned, something that’s new, I don’t take it at face value,” Anthony said. “I always look for anything that verifies that and if there’s anything that opposed that.”

Both Anthony and Dr. Nistico encourage vaccinations and discredited the anti-vaccination movement.

“The most dangerous part of misinformation is the lack of understanding that your personal choice affects the health of other individuals,” Anthony said.

“The benefits strongly outweigh the risks for [vaccinations] and sometimes the coincidences can be misleading for some people,” Dr. Nistico said. “A large majority of people are using hearsay and they’re not getting vaccinated because of their personal experience.”

They highlighted the importance of “herd immunity,” which means that the majority (about 90-95%) of a population has been vaccinated, making it harder for communicable diseases to spread from person to person, and preventing an outbreak. Health experts also say herd immunity is necessary to protect those who cannot get vaccinated, such as someone with cancer or a life-threatening allergy.

Pinterest’s move to remove all vaccinaton-related content comes on the heels of a measles outbreak stretching across ten states, according to the CDC. The resurgence of the disease, which is vaccine-preventable, has led some lawmakers to reconsider allowing personal, religious, or philosophical exemptions for parents who do not want to vaccinate their children. A congressional hearing was held Wednesday to discuss response efforts for the current measles outbreak. Officials said the large majority of the cases were found in under-vaccinated pockets of the country.

Dr. Nistico supported that idea. “When people are vaccinaated we’ve seen a huge dropoff, like in polio for example, where we helped to eradicate this infection,” he said. “The same goes for measles; for a long time measles hasn’t been talked about until people stopped getting vaccinated.”

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