It takes mere moments to find thousands of Instagram posts from anti-vaxxers, but users spouting straight up bullshit about vaccinations on the photo-sharing platform are going to have a trickier time circulating their misinformation.
On Thursday, Instagram announced in a press conference that it was going to block hashtags populated with misinformation about vaccines. “If the hashtag was #vaccines1234, if it contained a high proportion of known vaccine misinformation, we would block that hashtag entirely,” said Karina Newton, Instagram’s global head of public policy, the Verge reported.
The company reportedly said that “known vaccine misinformation” has been debunked by the World Health Organisation, the Centres for Disease Control, and other like organisations. So hashtags that include posts with confirmed false information won’t display any search results. But simply sharing a post criticising vaccinations may be able to stay up.
For example, a search for #vaccinefree, at the time of writing, pulls up over 6,000 posts with overtly anti-vaccination sentiments, such as a photo of a woman in a shirt that reads “NO, I DON’T WANT A FLU SHOT!”, memes, a lot of baby photos, and a photo of a hospital discharge paperwork with “Incomplete” underlined next to flu vaccine.
The latter also included the hashtags #flushot #bebold #sayno #vaccineinjury #educatebeforeyouvaccinate #vaccinefree #flu #standup #dontgetpressured and #peerpressure.
Hashtags with a “high proportion” of posts containing “known vaccine misinformation” will be reportedly flagged using machine learning. It is unclear exactly how many anti-vaccination misinformation posts will have to make up a hashtag in order for it to be blocked, and exactly what Instagram’s machine learning model will look for in order to expeditiously and accurately identify them.
An Instagram spokesperson said in an email sent to Gizmodo that if someone tries to click on a hashtag that has been blocked, there will be no search results, and the hashtag will also be unsearchable in the search bar.
The spokesperson also couldn’t share how much content would need to be false for a hashtag to be blocked to prevent bad actors from gaming the system, but they did say that for those with lower percentages of misinformation, the hashtag will only show a limited number of posts.
Over the last year or so, it’s entered the public consciousness that Instagram is not immune to some of the disturbing issues that have long been plaguing Facebook—issues like harassment and, in this case, misinformation.
It’s certainly a good thing to see Instagram attempt to tackle these issues with some sense of urgency, especially given the recent measles outbreak.
At this point, it’d be wilful ignorance for them to believe that their platforms, even one as seemingly innocuous as a photo-sharing one, aren’t powerful mechanisms by which anti-vaxxers can rapidly seed their dangerously unfounded beliefs.