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Facebook vowed to investigate horrific abuse by anti-vaxxers. Nine months later, no one was penalized

Posted June 20, 2020 10:09 p.m. EDT

— Nine months after Facebook vowed to investigate abuse by anti-vaxxers, no users have been penalized.

As detailed in a CNN report last year, anti-vaxxers have posted violent, horrific comments and death threats to vaccine advocates -- including mothers who've lost their children -- calling them the c-word and telling them they deserved to have their children die.

One mother who lost a child, Catherine Hughes, says she received thousands of abusive comments, including death threats. She was called a whore and told to kill herself. CNN shared some of these comments with Facebook, and Facebook agreed they were in violation of community standards. Still, Facebook took no action against those users, or others who tormented vaccine advocates, according to a Facebook spokesperson.

"It feels like Facebook doesn't care, like they think this is not their responsibility," said Hughes, who lost her infant son, Riley, to whooping cough in 2015, before he was old enough to be vaccinated against the disease.

In the spring of 2019, vaccine advocates, including Hughes, sent CNN comments from 67 Facebook users that they felt were abusive. CNN sent those to Facebook, which said that 39 of those users had violated their community standards with these comments. They removed one of those users in September and then vowed to conduct a "thorough investigation" into the others. But now, nearly a year later, none of the other 38 users has been punished, according to Facebook.

A Facebook spokesperson told CNN this week that the company couldn't take action against the users because the seven vaccine advocates who received the messages only had screen shots of the abuse, and did not have links.

"Without links to the content you shared, it makes it difficult for us to find and take proper action," said the spokesperson, who asked not to be named, but declined to say why.

On its website, Facebook says it won't put up with bullying and harassment.

"Bullying and harassment happen in many places and come in many different forms," according to Facebook's community standards. "We do not tolerate this kind of behavior because it prevents people from feeling safe and respected on Facebook."

  Facebook said posts violated community standards

While Facebook said it had difficulty, CNN easily found most of the users who posted material that violated Facebook's community standards, and even corresponded with them through Facebook's direct messenger service.

Andrew Marantz, a social media expert, said he found it hard to believe Facebook couldn't trace back the abusive users, just like CNN did.

"These people are supposed to be the best computer engineers in the whole world," he said.

Marantz, author of the book, "Antisocial," said there's a link between these incidents and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg's recent failure to act against President Trump's incendiary posts.

"Once [Zuckerberg] decided to let Trump do whatever he wants on the platform, that sets the tone for everything else," Marantz said in an interview with CNN.

In a May 29 post where Zuckerberg defended his inaction against the president, he summed up his position on expression on Facebook.

"I know many people are upset that we've left the President's posts up, but our position is that we should enable as much expression as possible unless it will cause imminent risk of specific harms or dangers spelled out in clear policies," he wrote.

Facebook's promise to investigate 

In September, after receiving the pieces of content from CNN, the Facebook spokesperson who asked not to be identified said the platform would investigate.

"This will take some time, but I've asked the team to do a more thorough investigation," the spokesperson wrote to CNN on September 11.

The spokesperson reiterated that promise twice more in emails to CNN.

CNN got back in touch with the spokesperson in early June to ask about the results of that investigation. The ​same spokesperson asked what CNN was referring to.

Reminding the spokesperson of the vows to investigate, CNN asked if any of the users had been penalized in any way. Facebook uses various actions, such as blocking someone from sharing posts for a period of time or disabling their profile or even kicking them Facebook.

The Facebook spokesperson responded that the company had been "able to remove comments" made by one user. Vaccine advocates say that hardly seems like a penalty, since the person behind the abusive comments was not punished.

Last year, Facebook did take action against one anti-vaxxer who called a vaccine advocate the n-word and gave her instructions on how to slit her wrists.

Aisha Odom, the vaccine advocate, reported the abuse to Facebook, but the user was still allowed to stay on the platform after a 30-day ban on sending messages in Facebook's Messenger app, according to the same Facebook spokesperson.

"Calling someone a horrible racial slur and telling them to kill themselves is totally OK with Facebook," Odom told CNN last year.

Months later, several weeks after CNN reported the message to Facebook, the company removed the user's account.

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