Tech's fight against anti-vaccine content prompts free speech debate

Tech's fight against anti-vaccine content

Every major medical body and federal office agrees: vaccines are safe and effective. But that's often not the message you get if you're a parent poking around online. Doctors are now questioning whether big tech companies share the blame for an alarming rise in unvaccinated kids, reports CBS News' Tony Dokoupil. Amazon, Facebook, and Google all seem to be trying to fix that, but where is the line between protecting a community and censoring it?

"The Greater Good" is a documentary challenging the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe. While it includes some mainstream scientists, it's one of at least five films Amazon apparently pulled from its popular streaming video service after being contacted by Congressman Adam Schiff.

"They did take steps to de-emphasize the misinformation," Schiff said.

Essentially, making them harder to find and harder to get. For Schiff, "maybe that's the right balance."

Amazon declined to comment on or even confirm the move but it came hours after Schiff sent an open letter calling on the company to stop "surfacing and recommending" content that "discourages parents from vaccinating their children." 

"What makes you comfortable having these tech companies decide what should rise and what should be suppressed? It's a big responsibility," Dokoupil asked.

"It is. I can't say that I am all that comfortable with that idea," Schiff said. "But I think here, where you're talking about an immediate threat to public health, where you're talking about a very strong scientific consensus, I think that cuts in favor of the exercise of social responsibility."

Leslie Manookian, a producer of "The Greater Good," said the film had been viewed more than 10 million times, mostly online, where she claims companies have now adjusted their algorithms to reduce the movie's visibility.

"We're slipping ever closer to tyranny and these tech companies are the ones who are really driving the bus," Manookian said. "We have not heard a word from Amazon, we've never heard a word from Facebook, never heard a word from YouTube, never heard a word from Google or any of these giant tech companies who are systematically censoring us."

The American Academy of Pediatrics sent letters to some of the largest tech companies asking Silicon Valley to confront what it calls "the spread of vaccine misinformation online." Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician and spokesperson for the AAP, said misinformation is crowding out real science on vaccines, endangering public health.

"It's about best interest," Swanson said. "This feels like a watershed moment. This feels like a time where everybody's raising their hands and saying, 'Wait a second, it matters what information is served up to me and I want to understand it more.'"

Facebook has pledged to "reduce the ranking" of pages that "spread misinformation about vaccinations." Google said it is "reducing recommendations of ... content or videos that could misinform users in harmful ways." Pinterest stopped serving results for searches related to vaccines.

Despite contacting tech companies about it, Rep. Schiff said he does not think it's the government's role to tell companies they can't publish certain content. "There is a First Amendment right to say whatever you will," Schiff said.

"But then why try to discourage tech companies from offering this free speech?" Dokoupil asked.

"Because we are forced to deal with the problem it creates, and that is public health crises because other people suffer as a result," Schiff said.

Asked about the line between free speech rights and overall public health, "The Greater Good" producer Leslie Manookian said, "Well, listen, if I want to say that climbing to the top of a mountain causes cancer, that should be my right. It's lunacy to say that I shouldn't be able to say that."

In addition to films, Amazon has apparently also removed several books related to vaccines. In a statement to CBS News, the company says it is "mindful of a global history fraught with book censorship, and we do not take this lightly."