On September 12, 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Commission (EC) held the first-ever Global Vaccination Summit in Brussels. The long-term objective of the gathering—which took place just weeks before the pandemic paralyzed the world—was to bring “high-level visibility and political endorsement to the topic of vaccination” and to engage political leaders and leaders from scientific, medical, industry, philanthropic, social media (Facebook) and civil society in global action against the spread of vaccine misinformation.”
Led by WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus and EC President Jean Claude Juncker, the one-day, invitation-only event brought together nearly 400 leaders from around the world. The list of invitees included elite politicians, high-ranking representatives from the United Nations (UN) and other international organizations, health ministries, leading academics, scientists, health professionals, the private sector, NGOs and social media influencers.
Roundtable 1: Jason Hirsch, Facebook’s Public Policy Manager
The Summit was structured around three Roundtables:
- Roundtable 1: In Vaccines We Trust: Strategies to increase vaccine confidence, and improve the uptake of vaccines and vaccination coverage; the role and responsibility of media, and the use of innovative communication strategies and tools to help increase vaccine confidence by all actors; and the possible actions by stakeholders—decision-makers, policy-makers, health professionals, civil society, organizations and communities—to increase vaccine confidence.
- Roundtable 2: The Magic of Science: Vaccine development cycle and major challenges to the development of effective vaccines, and determine which vaccines are needed; efficient use of existing and novel models for funding vaccine R&D and stimulating international collaborations for public health benefits; opportunities and major challenges to having a vaccine RD&I responding to global public health needs.
- Roundtable 3: Vaccines Protecting Everyone, Everywhere: Actions to enhance the use and uptake of vaccines in the decade ahead, including in fragile and humanitarian emergency settings; importance of accountability in a successful vaccine programme at all levels and by all people; importance of vaccines across the life course; vaccination as gateway to the success of primary health care (PHC) and universal health coverage (UHC).
Interestingly, the seven-member panel in Roundtable 1 included Jason Hirsch, Facebook’s Public Policy Manager. Hirsch oversees the social media giant’s Health Integrity Policy efforts, including the company’s “multi-faceted approach to combating misinformation about vaccinations.”
Before joining Facebook, Hirsch worked at Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale & Dorr, where he litigated mainly at the United States Supreme Court and provided public policy guidance to clients. At the firm, he focused on issues concerning constitutional law, public health, and voting rights, especially matters at the intersection of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and public health. While there, he frequently represented many of the largest U.S.-based public health organizations.
On March 21, 2019, the WHO issues a global declaration that vaccine hesitancy—including complacency and a lack of confidence and convenience—was one of the ten threats to global health. Following the announcement, Facebook declared that it was “now promoting science-based content from ‘authentic’ sources such as the World Health Organization (WHO) when users search for vaccine information on Facebook.” At the September Summit, Facebook insisted it reprimanded pages on its platform that spread misinformation about vaccinations and reduced the page’s visibility.
Speaking at the Summit, Hirsch reiterated that the company was taking its role regarding vaccines “very seriously,” adding:
“We want to take a two-part approach to improving the quality of information about vaccinations on our platform. The first thing that we are doing is reducing the distribution of misinformation about vaccinations and the second thing that we are doing is increasing exposure to credible, authoritative content on vaccinations.”
FB Guidance From Global Health Organizations, Including WHO & CDC
Eight days before the Global Vaccination Summit, the WHO issued a statement titled “Vaccine Misinformation: Statement by WHO Director-General on Facebook and Instagram.” The same day (Sept. 4), Facebook unveiled its updated plan to “connect people with authoritative information about vaccines on Facebook and Instagram.” In discussion with the WHO “for months,” the social media platform explained how its vaccine censorship would work, publishing:
“Leading global health organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have publicly identified verifiable vaccine hoaxes. If these vaccine hoaxes appear on Facebook, we will take action against them.
We also believe in providing people with additional context so they can decide whether to read, share, or engage in conversations about information they see on Facebook. We are exploring ways to give people more accurate information from expert organizations about vaccines at the top of results for related searches, on Pages discussing the topic, and on invitations to join groups about the topic. We will have an update on this soon.”
On October 13, 2020, Facebook updated its vaccine guidance and ad policies further, noting that “the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of preventative behaviors,” including getting the seasonal flu vaccine. Amplifying the decisions of public health partners, including Bill Gates, the company pointed out it already refuses ads with “vaccine hoaxes” identified by the CDC, WHO, and other global health leaders. Facebook went a step further on March 15, 2021, announcing the expansion of its COVID-19 Information Center (a partnership with Boston Children’s Hospital) to Instagram, along with a new tool to connect people to information about where and when to get a COVID-19 vaccine.
Facebook also indicated its plans to add labels on posts about COVID-19 vaccines to show more information from the WHO. The company stated that, since the beginning of the pandemic, it has “partnered with ministries of health and health-focused organizations in more than 170 countries by providing free ads, enabling partners to share their own public health guidance on COVID-19 and information about the COVID-19 vaccine.” A multi-lingual Facebook ad campaign for the European Parliament generated over 100 million views and nearly 2 million clicks in a short thirty days. On May 26, 2021, Facebook offered the following update on its COVID-19 information:
“In light of ongoing investigations into the origin of COVID-19 and in consultation with public health experts, we will no longer remove the claim that COVID-19 is man-made or manufactured from our apps. We’re continuing to work with health experts to keep pace with the evolving nature of the pandemic and regularly update our policies as new facts and trends emerge.”
In a July 17, 2021, post in Facebook’s Newsroom, Guy Rosen, VP of Integrity, expressed frustration towards the Biden administration’s focus on “a handful” of social media companies as COVID-19 cases continued to rise in the United States. Explaining the tech giant’s role in the pandemic, he stated, “while social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a whole of society approach to end this pandemic.” Rosen declared Facebook has already taken action on all eight of the U.S. Surgeon General’s recommendations on what tech companies can do to help confront health misinformation.
Are Conflicts of Interest Guiding Facebook’s Directives?
Nearly half of the WHO’s budget comes from private sources, including millions from Big Pharma, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the CDC. For years, the CDC (a global health partner of the WHO), WHO, FDA, and NIH have been embroiled in controversy surrounding the interpretation of data related to vaccines and vaccine safety. Repeatedly, the CDC has been accused of blatant conflicts of interest. In 1999, a four-month investigation by United Press International (UPI) into the agency that sets the U.S. childhood immunization schedule revealed “serious problems linked to vaccines recommended by the CDC—and a web of close ties between the agency and the companies that make vaccines.”
Since the mid-1980s, the CDC has nearly tripled the number of vaccines required for children. Besides making the recommendation for vaccines, the agency also tracks (many argue very poorly) potential side effects and adverse vaccines reactions with the FDA. As UPI pointed out over twenty years ago, “this puts the agency in the awkward position of evaluating the safety of its own recommendations.”
The 15 voting members of the CDC’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) are responsible for making vaccine recommendations. The members are selected by the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Additional non-voting members from other federal agencies and organizations also serve on the committee. According to the UPI article, published on July 21, 2003:
“Members of the CDC’s Vaccine Advisory Committee get money from vaccine manufacturers. Relationships have included: sharing a vaccine patent; owning stock in a vaccine company; payments for research; getting money to monitor manufacturer vaccine tests; and funding academic departments.”
Indeed, developing a vaccine, which can cost billions, is a huge business. A recommendation from the CDC guarantees a global market for the extremely profitable vaccine industry, which, since 1986, bears little liability for side effects. We’ve had repeated assurances from global leaders that humanity will experience future—and perhaps more deadly—pandemics once COVID exits. It’s feasible that novel vaccines will be a key remedy, and Facebook will be a seasoned and well-groomed key player in delivering the narrative.