Facebook is facing a new lawsuit by an anti-vaccine group called Children’s Health Defense (CHD) in federal court in California. The suit alleged that Facebook’s fact-checking program for false scientific or medical misinformation violates its constitutional rights.
The anti-vaccine group founded by anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in its complaint claims that these falsely disparaging labels caused traffic to their page to drop by 95 percent. CHD says Facebook is unfairly censoring them by applying fact-check labels to their posts.
Children’s Health Defense further argues that Facebook is censoring its words and violating its right to free speech, but that really isn’t the case.
The complaint has been filed against Facebook, its CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and the fact-checking organizations PolitiFact, Science Feedback, and Poynter Institute. Facebook and its fact-checking partners have been sued for rejecting ads.
Researchers claimed that last year Kennedy was responsible for more than half of anti-vaccine advertisements on Facebook when they were permitted. That ended in 2019 when Facebook updated its policies following pressure from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and lawmakers.
However, this case doesn’t have a clear precedent for success. Judges have dismissed the argument that social media platforms are public spaces bound by the First Amendment, and much of the lawsuit simply contradicts Facebook fact-checkers’ claims.
Anti-vaxxers have always relied on social media like Facebook to spread false theories about vaccines based on weird science facts for years now.
Facebook had begun to clamp down on anti-vaccination misinformation by adding a label to CHD’s page saying this page posts about vaccines and linking to information from the CDC. It even blocked the content from being promoted through ads and downplayed it in search results. Along with displaying alerts on CHD content, Facebook also removed the group’s donate button.
CHD alleges that this all results in a falsely disapproving impression of the organization, indicating that Kennedy’s organization is not reliable and promotes incorrect scientific claims.
Social media platforms have always struggled to stop false scientific claims from spreading online. While platforms have acknowledged the potential for tangible harm, they’ve also become entangled in political battles over topics like COVID-19. Two recent reports claimed Facebook reversed strikes against conservative sites that posted misinformation, including false claims about the coronavirus. Lawsuits are a new attempt to make anti-misinformation moderation more costly.
Social media sites have also faced scrutiny from conservative lawmakers who claim they impose a political bias when fact-checking or labeling posts.