Anti-Vaccine Disinformation Still Going Strong on Social Media: Report

Just twelve accounts have been responsible for fully two-thirds of online disinformation about vaccines since 2020 — but social media platforms still aren’t doing much, if anything, about them.

In a follow-up to a report tracking a majority of disinformation about vaccines to only a dozen accounts online, researchers from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch say platforms have still taken almost no action to counter harmful, sometimes fatal lies about the COVID-19 pandemic.

The original March 2021 report (“The Disinformation Dozen: Why platforms must act on twelve leading online anti-vaxxers”) delves into what it has designated the worst offenders in the anti-vaccine “movement,” a highly astroturfed and inauthentically organized world that relies on a few major influencers for its campaigns:

Living in full view of the public on the internet are a small group of individuals who do not have relevant medical expertise and have their own pockets to line, who are abusing social media platforms to misrepresent the threat of Covid and spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines. According to our recent report, anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter reach more than 59 million followers, making these the largest and most important social media platforms for anti-vaxxers.4 Our research has also found anti-vaxxers using social media platforms to target Black Americans, exploiting higher rates of vaccine hesitancy in that community to spread conspiracies and lies about the safety of Covid vaccines.

Facebook, Google and Twitter have put policies into place to prevent the spread of vaccine misinformation; yet to date, all have failed to satisfactorily enforce those policies. All have been particularly ineffective at removing harmful and dangerous misinformation about coronavirus vaccines, though the scale of misinformation on Facebook, and thus the impact of their failure, is larger.

The full list of the entities CCDH identified as the “Disinformation Dozen” are likely already well known to anybody who has done research in the anti-vaccine and anti-masking disinformation space: Joseph Mercola, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Ty and Charlene Bollinger, Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, Rashid Buttar, Erin Elizabeth, Sayer Ji, Kelly Brogan, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper, and Kevin Jenkins.

It also called on tech companies to deplatform organizations that it has identified as networks used to spread harmful messaging:

• Children’s Health Defense (Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.)
• Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) (Del Bigtree)
• National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) (Barbara Loe Fisher, Joseph Mercola)
• Organic Consumers Association (OCA) (Joseph Mercola)
• Millions Against Medical Mandates

The initial report also recommended clear thresholds for triggering enforcement from moderators, banning private or secret anti-vaccine groups, and other actions to crack down on harmful disinformation and propaganda campaigns during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which has claimed millions of lives globally and continues to peak and ebb in waves.

American legislators and attorneys-general also sent letters to the chief executive officers of Facebook and Twitter asking them to do more to stop misinformation and disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic broadly, and vaccines in particular:

“For too long, social media platforms have failed to adequately protect Americans by not taking sufficient action to prevent the spread of vaccine disinformation online,” wrote Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) in a Friday letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, which was viewed by Recode. “Despite your policies intended to prevent vaccine disinformation, many of these accounts continue to post content that reach millions of users, repeatedly violating your policies with impunity.”

During an April 27 2021 Senate hearing into online disinformation campaigns and how they are potentially aided by algorithms whose very existence, to say nothing of their intended purpose, is obscured, a Facebook representative claimed that there are already measures in place to dampen the spread of damaging falsehoods and lies.

However, as the follow-up report pointed out, little has been done.  In fact, most of those very same disinformation purveyors are posting unabated:

As the platforms themselves are opaque about the reach and impact of any post, we elected to represent the total potential impact using “potential impressions”. We calculated this metric by taking each violating post and multiplying it by the number of followers of the posting account as of 24 April 2021.

This process revealed that the Disinformation Dozen have posted 105 pieces of content that violate platform service agreements in the month since members of Congress called on tech CEOs to deplatform them.

This content generated up to 29 million potential impressions from the existing followers of Disinformation Dozen accounts, not including the reach of Facebook’s private groups, hidden messages and other tactics being used by leading anti-vaxxers to continue to operate amid heightened scrutiny by our groups and others.

Despite repeatedly violating Facebook, Instagram and Twitter’s terms of service agreements, half of the Disinformation Dozen remain on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Nine of the 12 remain on Facebook, 10 of the 12 remain on Twitter, and 9 of the 12 remain on Instagram, with no discernible consistency or transparency in how platforms treat violations.

But those who have been watching this play out for some time knew there would be little changes without major pressure from outside the technology industry.

“It is unsurprising to see uneven enforcement on anti-vax accounts as these individuals and groups have spent years preparing for a moment like this,” disinformation and online extremism expert Dr. Joan Donovan told us:

There is no legitimate social need for a pro-vaxx movement, except in the very grim reality of today, where medical misinformation is so potent and omni-present. Platform companies are not just culpable at this stage of the pandemic in providing the tools for these people to scale misinformation, but they also incentive them financially too.

If people want to take action, then contacting their government representatives and providing examples of misinformation they have encountered is a good place to start.

The influence of professional anti-vaccine propaganda is no mere abstraction, either. As with other disinformation campaigns, it has real-world effects ranging from concerning to hideous. For example, a March 2021 poll indicated that fully one in four Americans would refuse the COVID-19 vaccine outright, with many citing concerns about complications that are based on rumor, innuendo, hearsay, and outright lies — which can often be traced back to one of the twelve worst offenders detailed in the CCDH/Anti-Vax Watch report.

On June 4 2023, Meta subsidiary Instagram announced that it was revoking Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s suspension, citing his announcement of a presidential run as their reason:

“As he is now an active candidate for president of the United States, we have restored access to Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s, Instagram account,” Andy Stone, a spokesperson for Instagram’s parent company Meta said in a statement.

Kennedy, who has a long history of spreading vaccine misinformation, was banned from Instagram in February 2021.

A company spokesperson at the time said Instagram had removed his account for “repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines.”

While Kennedy’s Instagram account was banned, his Facebook account remained active. Both platforms are owned by Meta.

The revocation of the ban has given him access to hundreds of thousands of additional readers. It is also part of a larger shift by Silicon Valley back toward promoting disinformation campaigns under the guise of free speech:

The decision comes as traditional media and social media companies attempt to navigate a 2024 election campaign fraught with accusations of misinformation and censorship.

On Friday [June 2 2023], YouTube announced it would no longer remove content featuring false claims that the 2020 US presidential election was stolen, reversing a policy instituted more than two years ago amid a wave of misinformation about the election.

However, in recent weeks another now-former member of the “Disinformation Dozen” suffered a much grimmer fate. Anti-vaccine conspiracist Rashid Buttar, a member of the original list, apparently died in May 2023 following a brief illness which he, true to form, appeared to blame on the nonexistent issue of “vaccine shedding.”

And on August 9 2023, Ohio state officials indefinitely suspended the medical license for another disnformation purveyor within the group, Sherri Tenpenny. The Cleveland-area physician has a history of claiming that the COVID-19 vaccines “magnetize” people, telling lawmakers in 2021, “They can put a key on their forehead and it sticks … There have been people who have long suspected there’s an interface, yet to be defined, an interface between what’s being injected in these shots and all of the 5G towers,” among other wildly inaccurate and fully debunked statements:

Her comments, the subject of widespread ridicule, triggered a swarm of 350 complaints to the State Medical Board and a chain of events that led to the regulators indefinitely suspending the medical license Wednesday of anti-vaccine activist Sherri Tenpenny.

The board, charged with protecting the public and overseeing the licensure of Ohio’s doctors, yanked Tenpenny’s license on procedural grounds rather than the substance of her comments. Board staff found she flouted investigators who came to visit, declined to answer written questions, and objected wholesale to the regulators’ inquiry.

“Dr. Tenpenny, neither you nor any doctor licensed by this board is above the law, and you must comply with the investigation,” said Dr. Jonathan Feibel, an orthopedic surgeon and medical board member. “You have not done so, and therefore, until you do, your license will be suspended.”


Updated 8/10/2023, 10:17 am: Writethru with details about Sherri Tenpenny’s license. -bb

Updated 6/5/2023, 11:20 am: Added details about RFK Jr.’s reinstatement and Rashid Buttar’s reported death. -bb

Updated 4/28/2021, 1:21 pm: Added quote from Dr. Joan Donovan. -bb