Facebook mass banning – reasonable response to anti-vaccine attacks

This article about Facebook mass banning of individuals who engage in anti-vaccine attacks on Facebook was written by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), who is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy, and the law.

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Prof. Reiss is also a member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.

This article will discuss the tactics of the anti-vaccine activists and how we can respond to it, including Facebook mass banning.

Anti-vaccine tactics on Facebook

A common tactic by anti-vaccine groups is to post calls to action against pages and posts that contain positive messages about vaccines. If shared in a large group or page, these calls result in hundreds, even thousands of anti-vaccine commenters descending on the page and commenting, some with threats, some with insults, some with more reasonable-sounding, though still generally wrong, comments. 

Sending attackers is not a new tactic; it has been going on for years. But one change is that with larger groups and pages, the volume of attackers changed.

If in the past the pattern was smaller numbers of commenters commenting repeatedly, now a page can face hundreds or thousands of comments, and negative reviews, and more. That is too much for most pages to handle by themselves. And that, of course, is the purpose – deter people from posting positively about vaccines, get them to delete messages the anti-vaccine movement does not like.

Let us be clear: the people initiating such an attack are not looking for a meaningful dialogue. They are seeking to make posting about vaccines unattractive, to penalize the pages or groups, to basically intimidate them into silence. It is literally an attack motivated by ill-intent.

It was such an attack that led to the creation of Shots Heard Around the World, a group created to respond to attacks on doctors by a vetted, supported cavalry of knowledgeable pro-vaccine commenters. Because Shots Heard is focused on doctors, and doctors are not the only victims, a group called C.I.C.A.D.A was created on Facebook to respond to attacks on others.

Both groups provide important support, by having science-based voices provide counters to anti-vaccine voices. They are important and helpful in affirming and supporting pro-vaccine posts and providing a counter on posts in “neutral zones” – like news articles.

But they do not solve the problem of a small page run by volunteers or a small business faced with hundreds of thousands of comments, negative reviews, and messages. Both groups can offer guidance on what to do and how to handle the problem of fake negative reviews.

Facebook mass banning of anti-vaxxers 

But a solution that seemed to work for mass attacks came up recently. This is something we tried a few times before, but it crystallized into a realistic option in the attack on Dr. Nicole Baldwin, a doctor who made a wonderful video on TikTok that went viral and was then targeted by anti-vaccine groups. 

Faced with the deluge, we offered to help her administer the page. With some administers she found, and others who volunteered through our pages, we created a team of over 11 people across timezone – people from the United States, Europe, New Zealand, and Australia. The instructions to the team were to ban anti-vaccine activists on sight.

When Dr. Free N Hess posted a wonderful post about influenza and was similarly targeted, she requested similar administering help. We provided it.

We have since done it for others, and are willing to do it for anyone who asks.

The way it works is that volunteers who are well known to the vaccine advocates are made editors of the page, which allows them to ban but not to take the page over. They then ban anti-vaccine people who comment, anti-vaccine people who post angry faces or laughs, anti-vaccine people who share the page.

When I do it, I follow shares and ban people who show hostility to the target page on the shared post. Why wait for them to attack? Well, letting them post or react would bump the post up; even angry reacts can help visibility. But at a cost to the page, and since time is limited, if I have a few minutes to do it I don’t see a reason to wait.

With a team of 5-15 administrators, anti-vaccine comments end up not staying more than a few minutes. The pressure on each individual administrator – volunteers who are not paid for their efforts and who often have other commitments, like jobs and families – is minimal, as well, when the group is large.

The mass banning relieves the pressure on the page owner and is a way to help. I think it’s an effective and appropriate reaction to a mass attack. If the attack is directed at a person, that person can set comments to friends or friends of friends only. But if it’s a page, right now there is no direct way to turn off commenting (something to think about, Facebook?), and Facebook mass banning is a good alternative.

I would encourage pages under attack to reach out to Shots Heard, C.I.C.A.D.A, or myself with such requests.

Issues and responses to Facebook mass banning

Trust

Having many people administer a page raises questions about trusting their judgment. One reason for a blanket rule of banning on sight – not the only or even most important one – is that it reduces the need for use of judgment.

Still, errors are likely to happen – for example, banning someone who is pro-vaccine and not ban-worthy is possible. Another potential error is that administrators may forget that they are acting as the page and may post a comment as the page.

That is not the goal – the administrators are not chosen or expected to speak for the page. If it happens, such comments should be deleted and reposted with an individual’s name – but for that, you have to notice the error.

Further, the error can lead to conspiracy theories. For example, one of the large group of admins helping Dr. Baldwin was Allison Hagood, a professor of psychology and longtime administrators of multiple pro-vaccine pages.

After mistakenly posting as the page, she deleted a comment and reposted it with her name. Anti-vaccine activists screenshot similar posts with different posters and came up with the strange theory that Dr. Baldwin is not a real person, and Allison is pretending to be her – even though Dr. Baldwin posted videos of herself, and her identity – and Allison’s – are easy to verify.

Mistakes can happen. Page owners need to realize that this is part of the package and that administrators will do their best to avoid mistakes and correct them if they happen. Page owners need to consider that when deciding if to go this route.

Another concern may be that untrustworthy administrators may sabotage the page. I hope I can vouch for people I recommend or add – I only add people I know for a while – but I, or the page owner when adding directly, can make a mistake. That is why people should be added as Editors only, which gives limited control of the page.

Pages should also feel free to tell the administrator team when the crisis is over, thank them politely and remove them. This is a temporary fix, not a take-over.

Discussion

Different pages have different policies for moderating pages. Some welcome comments and discussion, even from anti-vaccine people, some refuse to provide a platform, some have specific guidelines. There is room for different approaches to this.

But during a mass attack, there is not going to be any meaningful discussion. I acknowledge that some of the anti-vaccine commenters may sincerely come seeking discussion. But with the volume, there just is not the time or ability to sort out these people from clear attackers, and further, there is no time or ability to engage in meaningful discussion.

The pages or group initiating the attack know it. They want to overwhelm the page. Whether or not the usual policy supports discussion, during an attack, anyone who comes from an anti-vaccine group or page is taking part in the attack, and merits banning – even if they are not intentionally part of the attack.

With a moment of thought, anti-vaccine activists should realize that in that situation, they are acting as part of a hostile group. If they sincerely want to engage respectfully with the page, they can stay back, wait until the attack is over, and then reach out politely. The page can return to its usual policies as the crisis subsides.

Also, remember that there is no First Amendment right against private pages or practices. The First Amendment protects people against government infringement on speech – it does not guarantee them a platform and does not require a private actor to give them one.

Public bodies

Public bodies are subject to the First Amendment. Health departments and governments cannot discriminate between commenters based on content. They can, however, set general guidelines, and in times of high attack, they can likely take steps to stop all comments temporarily. I am happy to discuss this directly with such pages as needed.

In short, Facebook mass banning is a reasonable response to a mass attack  (and can be applied to other social media platforms), but it comes with some costs.

Pages seeking help should feel free to request such help from the pro-vaccine advocates online that are seeking to help them.

Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
This article is by Dorit Rubinstein Reiss, Professor of Law at the University of California Hastings College of the Law (San Francisco, CA), is a frequent contributor to this and many other blogs, providing in-depth, and intellectually stimulating, articles about vaccines, medical issues, social policy and the law. 

Professor Reiss writes extensively in law journals about the social and legal policies of vaccination. Additionally, Reiss is also member of the Parent Advisory Board of Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease.