Who is spreading most of the COVID vaccine misinformation on social media

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Around two-thirds of anti-vaccination misinformation is being shared by just a dozen social-media influencers, according to a report that was recently published and resurfaced this month in light of comments made by US President Joe Biden.

Over the weekend, Biden accused Facebook and other social-media platforms of “killing people” by spreading lies about the coronavirus vaccines.

According to a report by the London-based Center for Countering Digital Hate, 65% of the so-called lies stem largely from “12 anti-vaxxers who play leading roles in spreading digital misinformation about COVID vaccines.” These people have large numbers of followers, produce high volumes of anti-vaccine content or have seen rapid growth of their social-media accounts during the course of the coronavirus crisis, the report said.

“Influence is not democratized on social media but concentrated,” CCDH founder and CEO Imran Ahmed told The Jerusalem Post. “A small number of people hold a disproportionate amount of influence on social media.”

This concept applies to other sectors, as well, such as antisemitism, racism and other forms of hate speech, he said.

Ahmed highlighted what happened during the recent escalation between Israel and Hamas, where a small but strong group of anti-Israeli influencers took to social media to condemn the Jewish state and thread antisemitic themes into the narrative.

“You can find the source point if you work on tracking it backwards,” he said. “It is a small number of websites and influencers that get retweeted and shared.”

The organization’s COVID analysis centered on 812,000 anti-vaccine posts shared on Facebook or Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021. Two-thirds of the posts were shared by what CCDH calls the “Disinformation Dozen”: 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.

Mercola is described as an “anti-vaccine entrepreneur” with 3.6 million social-media followers. He sells dietary supplements and so-called false cures as alternatives to vaccines.

The Bollingers sell books and DVDs about vaccines, cancer and COVID-19. They have promoted the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates plans to inject everyone with microchips as part of a vaccination program.

Islam, for example, promoted the controversial idea that COVID vaccines make women infertile in a tweet last June and has written: “I beat COVID in 48 hours. This is how: 1 – No solid foods, only hot soups with vegetable broth, no dairy, lots of spices including turmeric and cayenne pepper. 2 – Roughly two gallons of water each day = 4 gallons of water that I drank in two days. 3 – 4,000 mgs of vit. C every four hours.”

On Facebook, their posts represented 73% of content and on Twitter 17%.

Researchers have connected vaccine misinformation shared on social-media platforms with increased vaccine hesitancy.

“Exposure to even a small amount of online vaccine misinformation has been shown by the Vaccine Confidence Project to reduce the number of people willing to take a Covid vaccine by up to 8.8%,” the report said.

Unvaccinated individuals are said to be more likely to contract coronavirus, develop severe disease and die.

Although the names and profiles of the dozen were presented to Facebook, including to the company’s owner, when the report first came out, Facebook failed to remove the majority of these profiles, Ahmed told the Post.

“Despite repeatedly violating Facebook, Instagram and Twitter’s terms of service agreements, nine of the Disinformation Dozen remain on all three platforms, while just three have been comprehensively removed from just one platform,” the report said.

The best way to stop the spread of this harmful content is to remove these profiles and the organizations they control or fund from the social networks, since they are violating their terms and services anyway, Ahmed said, adding that policies put into place by Facebook and Twitter have been largely ineffective.

“Research conducted by CCDH last year has shown that platforms fail to act on 95% of the COVID and vaccine misinformation reported to them,” the report said.

Gabriel Weimann, a professor of communication and a senior researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at IDC Herzliya, who has published reports calling out TikTok for allowing a growing number of antisemitic videos on its platform, praised the CCDH report.

“They call for action by naming those dozen distributors, which I think is one of the promising ways to fight back – not just in the case of COVID, but in general,” he said.

The message should be that even in liberal democratic societies, despite their desire to allow free speech and free communication, “we have and should have redlines that should not be crossed,” Weimann said.

In response to Biden’s claims, Facebook vice president of integrity Gary Rosen said: “While social media plays an important role in society, it is clear that we need a whole of society approach to end this pandemic.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Facebook has removed more than 18 million instances of COVID-19 misinformation and reduced visibility of more than 167 million pieces of content that were highlighted by its network of fact-checkers, he said in a statement.

CCDH offered six ways that social networks can take action against the plague of misinformation: “Establish a clear threshold for enforcement action; display corrective posts to users exposed to disinformation; add warning screens when users click links to misinformation sites; institute an accountability API to allow experts on sensitive and high-importance topics to perform the human analysis that will ultimately make Facebook’s AI more effective; platforms can also offer guidance for users wishing to debunk information without running afoul of enforcers; and ban private and secret anti-vaccine Facebook Groups.”

“We differentiate between anti-vaxxers and [the] vaccine hesitant,” Ahmed concluded. “Anti-vaxxers create an industry in which they profit from spreading misinformation about COVID, vaccines and doctors. Most people are victims of being bombarded with misinformation.”

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