Abusing the Algorithm: Using Facebook Reporting to Censor Debate

It seems obvious, but apparently it’s not: getting someone banned from Facebook for posting polite, factual comments you disagree with is a problematic tactic. If that’s what you have to resort to, it means that you have no credible arguments. It is also reflects badly on your debating ethics.

But that’s what some anti-vaccine activists have chosen to do. And they’re proud of it.

Gaming Facebook Algorythm’s to Silence Those that Disagree

Over the weekend of December 21-22, an unknown person or persons used a new tactic, directed mainly at members of the Australian organization “Stop the Australian Vaccination Network” (The Australian Vaccination Network – AVN – is, in spite of its name, an anti-vaccine organization – see also here; SAVN had been very effective in exposing their agenda and mobilizing against them). In an attempt to silence pro-vaccine voices on Facebook, they went back over old posts and reported for harassment any comment that mentioned one person’s name specifically. Under Facebook’s algorithm, apparently, mentioning someone’s name means that if the comment is reported it can be seen as violating community standards. Which is particularly ironic, since many commentators, when replying to questions or comments from an individual, would use that individual’s name out of courtesy.

Several of the people so reported  received 12 hours bans. Some of them in succession.

Here are some examples of the comments reported (a very small selection out of many, many comments):


“Karen I clicked on your ABC link and it still says January 8, 2009 for me, not August 2007.”

AVN 6640 John banned comment

“Karen; a challenge for you: find a case where a judicial officer (judge, special master etc) has heard evidence for and against a link between vaccines and autism and then found in favour of a link. Give me a link to the judgment, not what what Mike Adams or others claim is in the judgment.”

AVN 6641 Meleese banned comment

“Karen I had a whooping cough booster 3 years ago. There are no babies or children even in the circles I move in. However, I use public transport and shop in supermarkets where there are little ones. Yes we vaccinate to protect ourselves but this is a community issue and my primary motivation for getting a booster was so that I wouldn’t inadvertently pass on the disease, if I got it, to someone more vulnerable than myself.”

unvaccinated child exposed

“Karen – an unvaccinated child may not have been exposed to the disease prior to that time (ie, not the wild form or the ‘dead’ form in the vaccine), therefore their immune system wouldn’t have the memory, meaning their chances of getting the disease is especially high (if it’s measles, it’s a 90% infection rate in unvaccinated). By isolating the child if an outbreak occurs, it gives them a chance to avoid being infected.”

I cannot, for the life of me, understand what is abusive in these comments, or in what way these can violate anyone’s community standards. Well, I do understand. It’s an algorithm. It is automated, which is probably the only way Facebook can handle the incredible amount of traffic it has to deal with. But these are almost certainly not the kind of comments the creators of the algorithm had in mind.

Even comments that used more critical language are hard to describe as personal abuse or harassment, given the usual tenor of these disagreements:

Hope Karen is listening

“I hope “Karen” was listening to the radio. The AVN and its Ex-President got another rubbishing from Steven Price on 2 GB before a great interview with Ken McLeod about Stop the Australian Vaccination Network.”

The anti-vaccine activists proudly proclaimed their ability to game Facebook’s system. The following picture was posted to the wall of a Facebook page :

list of comments reported


And a page was created to celebrate this effort at censoring :

Time out for Provaxer


Bruler n’est pas répondre: And Neither is Silencing

Censorship (using the term colloquially, to mean silencing debate by aggressive, sometimes less than savory means; as a legal concept, censorship means by government or a quasi-governmental entity ) is a tactic repeatingly used by anti-vaccine activists, as detailed by Anthropologist Anna Kata:[1]

“The anti-vaccination movement is extremely disparaging of those criticizing them, to the point of censoring dissenting opinions. …. More underhanded methods have also been used to silence vaccine advocates. For example, Orac is the pseudonymous author of the Respectful Insolence blog, which often censures the anti- vaccination movement. A misspelling of the domain name of his other website, oracknows.blogspot.com, was bought by JB Handley, co-founder of Generation Rescue – oracknows.com redirects to generationrescue.org Posts at Age of Autism also alleged Orac has pharmaceutical ties, as his university received pharmaceutical company funding; one commenter posted the university’s address, which was bombarded with complaints regarding the supposed conflict of interest in attempts to have him fired. More recently, another public health blogger was forced to cease all social media activities when a critic complained about his pro-vaccine opinions to his employer.”

In a previous post, I addressed the use of weak or unfounded lawsuits to attempt to silence those who speak up for vaccines.

AVN, too, used silencing before.

Silencing the other side, it appears, is not a bug: it’s a feature of the movement, or at least of its more extreme elements. I hope that most anti-vaccine activists will not descend to the level of childish glee at gaming Facebook’s algorithm demonstrated by this particular actor. But I wonder whether they will, nonetheless, condone and support the abusive reporting itself. I have certainly seen no criticism of it.

It seems almost redundant to highlight that this demonstrates the weakness of the movement’s position. In fact, there is very little credible evidence supporting the anti-vaccine creed. There’s a reason the scientific and medical consensus is that the slight risks of vaccines are dramatically lower than the risks of not vaccinating, and that the benefits of vaccines are overwhelming. There is a gigantic body of scientific literature, from all around the world, done by different teams in different institutions, with different sources of funding.

Faced with this wealth of evidence, anti-vaccine activists often resort to conspiracy theories – and yes, to attempts to intimidate or silence the pro-vaccine voice. But really, those tactics are not a substitute to having arguments on your side. As Camille Desmoulins threw in the face of Robespierre, when Robespierre wanted to burn Desmoulins’ pamphlet calling for leniency and a cease to the terror during the French Revolution: “Brûler n’est pas repondre” – to do away with a critique, to force your opponent into silence, is not to answer it.

Ironically, anti-vaccine activists are very prone to crying censorship. For example, the recent backlash against Katie Couric’s misleading show about the HPV vaccines (These two posts also link to other articles on it) led to claims that this backlash was censorship). It’s not, of course. Criticizing isn’t censorship anymore than it is bullying. Criticism is an inherent part of freedom of speech. Freedom of speech gives you the right to voice your opinion (though it does not necessarily gives you direct access – or a right to access – a specific forum). But the same freedom of speech covers the right of others to criticize what you say. Even harshly. Your right to voice a view does not extend to the right to be free from criticism of it.

And frankly, when someone says things that are inaccurate in a public forum, it’s completely appropriate to correct them. When these inaccuracies can lead parents to reject the medical and scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and save lives, and deny their children protection against preventable diseases, it’s more than appropriate: it’s important to correct them.

It is, however, censorship to prevent criticism by taking away the critics’ ability to express themselves. Like silencing them by falsely reporting them to Facebook for harassment. Such actions deserve to be called out for what they are: a reflection of the actors’ lack of respect for freedom of speech, their willingness to use underhanded means, and a weak substitute to actually having substance on your side and answers to the criticism.

And Facebook, you really need to change your algorithm.


[1] Anna Kata, Anti-vaccine activists, Web 2.0, and the postmodern paradigm – An overview of tactics and tropes used online by the anti-vaccination movement, 30 Vaccine 3778, 3782 (2012).

About the Author
Dorit teaches law in UC Hastings, is a mom, and a member of the Parents Advisory Board at UC Hastings. She was born in Israel and still has a large family there.