A new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Anti-Vax Watch has identified 12 individuals, dubbed the “Disinformation Dozen,” as being responsible for spreading up to 65 percent of all online anti-vaccine information.
The Disinformation Dozen includes influential anti-vax leaders such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Joseph Mercola and Ty and Charlene Bollinger, among others. Their draw and popularity, as witnessed through an increase in their online followers, has grown significantly during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from these personalities, there are many others who have been peddling miracle cures and pandemic hoax theories.
The report found that despite social media operators such as Facebook, Twitter and Google having pledged to remove vaccine misinformation from their platforms, and repeated violations of the social media platforms’ terms of service agreements, most of the Disinformation Dozen are still present on the sites. In fact, the report states that up to 73 percent of Facebook’s anti-vax content originates from members of the alliterate group.
In their joint report, the CCDH and Anti-Vax Watch are calling on the social media giants to remove the accounts of the people behind the majority of anti-vaccine content on the platforms.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate is a not-for-profit NGO that aims to “disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation.” Anti-Vax Watch is an alliance of concerned individuals who seek to educate Americans about the dangers of the anti-vax movement.
“Disinformation has become a direct threat to public health,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of CCDH. “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.”
The CCDH and Anti-Vax report is based on analysis of some anti-vaccine content samplings that were posted or shared on Facebook and Twitter over 812,000 times between February 1 and March 16, 2021. It revealed that almost two-thirds of the content stemmed directly from some of the most prominent anti-vaccine leaders, groups and organizations in the US.
It states that, “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.”
US House Representative Mike Doyle led a nearly six-hour long hearing in congress last week warning of the dangers of the spread of misinformation online and demanding a stop to it. The Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation in the House Energy and Commerce Committee joint hearing was held by the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce.
In his opening statement, Doyle said, “Our nation is drowning in disinformation driven by social media. Platforms that were once used to share photos of kids with grandparents are all too often havens of hate, harassment and division. The way I see it, there are two faces to each of your platforms. Facebook has the family and friends’ neighborhood but it is right next to the one where there is a white nationalist rally every day.”
In addition to the Disinformation Dozen, he went on to shed light on how social media was used to organize the January 6th US Capitol Hill attack. “That attack and the movement that motivated it started and was nourished on your platforms. Your platforms suggested groups for people to join, videos they should view and posts they should like — driving this movement forward with terrifying speed and efficiency. FBI documents show that many of these individuals used your platforms to plan, recruit, and execute this attack.”
Despite Silicon Valley’s claims of reforms, he challenged Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and Sundar Pinchai to deplatform the dozen people immediately.
“You have the means, but, time after time, you are picking engagement and profit over the health and safety of your users, our nation and our democracy,” he said.
The surge of misinformation on social media platforms during the pandemic has hit almost every aspect of the global public health emergency. From bleach-based miracle cures and untested treatments such as hydroxychloroquine topping the headlines, to propagating grossly incorrect presumptions about the DNA-altering ability of mRNA vaccines and even deeming the pandemic itself a hoax, the disinformation has been loud, permeating and an enormous disservice to public health. And much of the COVID-19 vaccine misinformation discourse continues to be led by the Disinformation Dozen.
Recently, Facebook deactivated Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s page on the site for violating policies against spreading misinformation about COVID-19. He was promoting a remedy he claims, without evidence, can cure the disease, a Facebook spokesman said. In January, Maduro hailed Carvativir, an oral solution derived from thyme, to be a miracle cure for COVID-19, saying it can neutralize the coronavirus with no side effects. Doctors say the claim is not backed by science. Maduro posted a video citing his claim, which Facebook later took down as it violates its policy against false claims.
And this isn’t the first, nor will it be the last, miracle cure claim if social media platforms fail to take swift and strict action on such disinformation-spreading individuals and groups.