Of course, people listen to their doctor’s advice and discuss health issues with friends and family, but online research – along with information from social media – are a crucial part of the picture.
In many cases, people searching for vaccines information are coming to the topic for the first time. One of the first things we all do when we have questions about something is search online.
Age of the algorithm
So, what determines which websites we see when we search for information about vaccines? The mysterious Google Algorithm (known as PageRank) is the most powerful force in online media.
This complex formula determines which websites show up at the top of Google’s search results. It does this by estimating the quality and relevance of a website’s content based on things like how many other websites link to it and how often articles are shared on social media.
In Italy, where ongoing outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases have prompted the Parliament to pass a law requiring children to have vaccines against 10 diseases, the Health Minister sees Google as part of the solution.
In an interview with La Stampa newspaper, Beatrice Lorenzin said the government would work with Google to increase the ranking of ‘certified scientific news’. She also revealed that her team is exploring ways of removing fake news which poses a public health threat.
Details of the initiative remain scarce (Google had not replied to queries at the time of writing), but the prospect of tweaking search engine algorithms is a tantalising one. It’s not as complex as it seems – and would not involve painstakingly reviewing every vaccine-related webpage on the web.
Search engines could give extra weight to websites that have been independently reviewed and approved by Health on the Net or the WHO Vaccine Safety Net project. These websites go through regular review to maintain accreditation.
(Disclosure: Vaccines Today is a member of the Vaccine Safety Net and is HoN accredited.)
Google could also penalise anti-vaccine websites that sell ‘health’ products or promote myths which have been debunked. This could be done by machines rather than an army of proof-readers.
Such action would deliberately skew search results in favour of good websites, helping people new to the subject to make informed decisions based on facts.
After all, reality has a pro-science bias.
What about free speech?
This is not the first time that concerns about inaccurate health information have prompted public health figures to seek preferential treatment for high-quality websites. The WHO has worked with ICANN, which controls how websites are named, in an effort to protect the use of the .health suffix.
That would mean that websites ending in .health (rather than .com, .org or .eu) would offer readers instant assurance that they were reading scientifically-vetted material.
That conversation continues without resolution. One reason that ICANN is reluctant to limit the use of .health domain names is that it compromises freedom of expression, running counter to the freewheeling nature of the internet.
However, there are already plenty of topics that are either not permitted on the web because they are illegal or dangerous. Drawing the line between freedom of expression and protecting public health can be challenging but dozens of measles deaths in European countries may persuade some that action is needed.
In the meantime, science-based websites must continue to do all they can do to support one another by linking and sharing quality content.