Story at a glance
- Misinformation about COVID-19 and the vaccine is threatening public health efforts to inoculate Americans against the virus.
- A new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch found that most of the anti-vaccine content circulating online can be tied to 12 people.
- The list includes prominent people who oppose vaccines, such as Robert F. Kennedy, whose Instagram account was permanently removed earlier this year.
They’ve been dubbed the “Disinformation Dozen”: 12 individuals or organizations are tied to up to 65 percent of anti-vaccine content circulating on major social media networking sites, according to an analysis of popular anti-vaccine content on Facebook and Twitter.
“Disinformation has become a direct threat to public health,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which released the report in partnership with the Anti-Vax Watch, in a release. “In the midst of a global pandemic, the Anti-Vaccine Industry has executed a targeted campaign to mislead Americans about the safety of the COVID-19 vaccines. Social media is enabling anti-vaxxers to recruit millions of Americans and indoctrinate them with fear and doubt. If Big Tech companies don’t act now, the pandemic will be prolonged, and more lives will be lost.”
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The report accuses Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — who was banned from Instagram last month — Joseph Mercola, Ty and Charlene Bollinger — whose Twitter accounts were briefly suspended at the beginning of the pandemic — Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, Rashid Buttar, Erin Elizabeth, Sayer Ji, Kelly Brogan, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper and Kevin Jenkins of spreading disinformation and claims that their social media accounts “have repeatedly violated Facebook and Twitter’s terms of service agreements.” And the CCDH has receipts — the report is full of screenshots of “example violations” that range from misleading to antisemitic.
Several of these users have responded online, calling the report a “hitlist” and accusing the CCDH of trying to “control us with tricks & lies.”
Anti-vaxxers are instructing their followers to “give CCDH a piece of your mind.”
Why? Because our campaign to get anti-vaccine propagandists off social media is working.
— Center for Countering Digital Hate (@CCDHate) March 19, 2021
But the CCDH said the responses were only proof that their “campaign to get anti-vaccine propagandists off social media is working.” The timing of the report also coincides with a joint hearing in Congress that will put Google CEO Sundar Pichai, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg back in the hot seat over the spread of misinformation on their platforms, this time for its role in the insurrection on the United States Capitol in January.
A spokesperson for Twitter noted that the platform has removed over 20,000 posts from the platform and challenged nearly 12 million accounts under its coronavirus misinformation policy.
“We will not take action on every instance of misinformation. In order for content related to COVID-19 to be labeled or removed under this policy, it must: advance a claim of fact, expressed in definitive terms; be demonstrably false or misleading, based on widely available, authoritative sources; and be likely to impact public safety or cause serious harm,” they explained.
Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAlister told The Hill that the platform has “already taken action against some of the groups in this report.”
“Since research shows that the best way to combat vaccine hesitancy is to connect people to reliable information from health experts, we’ve also connected over 2 billion people to resources from health authorities, including through our COVID-19 Information Center,” he added.
Public health officials have warned against misinformation spread by the anti-vaccine movement, which began even before COVID-19 vaccines had been developed and grown online amid mixed messages from officials.
“This week, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google will appear before the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee to discuss the role of social media in the spread of disinformation,” Ahmed said in the release. “Members of the committee must use this opportunity to hold these companies accountable and urge them to follow through with their commitments to crack down on life-threatening disinformation. A clear and immediate way to stop the spread of anti-vaccine messages is to remove the Disinformation Dozen from their platforms.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include responses from Twitter and Facebook. The Hill’s technology reporter Chris Mills Rodrigo contributed to this story.
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