Friday, 26 March 2021

The 'disinformation dozen': Two-thirds of anti-vaxx content circulating on Facebook and Twitter can be traced back to just 12 people including Robert F Kennedy Jr, report claims

 Around two-thirds of viral anti-vaccine social media content circulating on Facebook and Twitter has been linked to just 12 notable individuals in new research.

Content that was shared more than 812,000 times on the social media platforms between February 1 and March 16 was analysed by The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Anti-Vax Watch alliance.

The alliance found that up to 65 percent of the content was attributed to 12 people, dubbed the 'disinformation dozen', including Robert F Kennedy Jr, a prolific anti-vaccine campaigner and son of former US attorney general Robert Kennedy.

In the 40-page report, the CCDH and Anti-Vax Watch alliance variety a breakdown of examples of the types of posts being shared by the 12 people, and devoted a number of pages to each person. 

Examples of their posts were included in the report. Some posts perpetuated conspiracy theories relating to Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, unfounded claims that vaccines cause harm to specific groups, or that vaccines cause autism. 

Other posts from the 12 people claimed that the coronavirus pandemic was not real, that masks had no effect on transmission, shared unproven coronavirus treatments and the unfounded claim that Covid-19 vaccines pose a threat to pregnant women. 

In addition to anti-vaxx and Covid-19 content, the examples also included posts that used racist antisemitic imagery, such as one post shared by Erin Elizabeth in which she perpetuated a prominent conspiracy theory about the Rothschild family. 

The groups found that up to 65 percent of the content was attributed to 12 people, dubbed the 'disinformation dozen', including Robert F Kennedy Jr (pictured in August 2020 speaking during a protest against coronavirus related measures) a prolific anti-vaccine campaigner and son of former US attorney general Robert Kennedy

The groups found that up to 65 percent of the content was attributed to 12 people, dubbed the 'disinformation dozen', including Robert F Kennedy Jr (pictured in August 2020 speaking during a protest against coronavirus related measures) a prolific anti-vaccine campaigner and son of former US attorney general Robert Kennedy

The most prominent spreader of anti-vaccine content was Joseph Mercola (pictured), an alternative medicine entrepreneur who has over 3.6m followers across Facebook, Instagram and Facebook

The most prominent spreader of anti-vaccine content was Joseph Mercola (pictured), an alternative medicine entrepreneur who has over 3.6m followers across Facebook, Instagram and Facebook

The most prolific spreader of anti-vaccine content was Joseph Mercola, an alternative medicine entrepreneur who has over 3.6m followers across Facebook, Instagram and Facebook, the report said. 

Mercola has previously been warned by the US Food and Drug Administration to stop selling supplements that claimed to treat coronavirus.

Ty and Charlene Bollinger, anti-vaxxer campaigners who have promoted the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates plans to inject humans with microchips in Covid-Vaccines, were also on the list.

Mask-sceptic physician Sherri Tenpenny and conspiracy theorist and influencer Rizza Islam also featured on the list.


The companies behind the social media platforms have recently pledged to crackdown on misinformation, particularly targeting anti-vaxx content in the midst of the pandemic. 

But the CCDH pointed out that the disinformation dozen have repeatedly violated Facebook and Twitter term's of service agreements. 

Despite this, of the 12 most prominent spreaders anti-vaxx information, nine are still active on all three platforms - Facebook, Instagram and Twitter - while only three have been prevented from using one, the CCDH said.

The study of anti-vaxx content posted to Facebook more than 689,000 times over the past two months found that 73 percent of it could be traced back to the same 12 people, as could around 17 percent of 120,000 anti-vaxx tweets.

The CCDH is now calling on the platforms to remove the most prominent known anti-vaxxers from their sites to reduce the volume of disinformation being produced and circulated, and likely harming people's trust in vaccines that are seen as vital to getting the coronavirus pandemic under control. 

'Disinformation has become a direct threat to public health,' said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of CCDH in a statement.

Conspiracy theorist and influencer Rizza Islam
Erin Elizabeth

Left: Conspiracy theorist and influencer Rizza Islam. Right: Erin Elizabeth. An example of one of the posts made by her feature antisemitic imagery

Ty and Charlene Bollinger, anti-vaxxer campaigners who have promoted the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates plans to inject humans with microchips in Covid-Vaccines, are on the list

Ty and Charlene Bollinger, anti-vaxxer campaigners who have promoted the conspiracy theory that Bill Gates plans to inject humans with microchips in Covid-Vaccines, are on the list 

Mask sceptic Sherri Tenpenny, whose account has been part-removed from Facebook

Mask sceptic Sherri Tenpenny, whose account has been part-removed from Facebook

'In the midst of a global pandemic, the anti-vaccine industry has executed a targeted campaign to mislead the public about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines.

'Social media is enabling anti-vaxxers to recruit millions of people 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.'

When contacted by iNews, Facebook and Twitter responded with comment, while Instagram was yet to reply at the time of reporting. 

A Facebook spokesperson told the news outlet that the company works with health organisations to update its policies regarding vaccine misinformation, and that is has already taken action against some of the names on the 12-person list. 

'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 2bn people to resources from health authorities, including through our Covid-19 Information Centre,' the Facebook statement said.  

Rashid Buttar is an osteopath physician and conspiracy theorist known for videos posted to his YouTube channel, according to the report

Rashid Buttar is an osteopath physician and conspiracy theorist known for videos posted to his YouTube channel, according to the report

Sayer Ji runs a popular alternative health website, GreenMedInfo.com, and affiliated social media accounts that promote pseudoscience and anti-vaccine misinformation (pictured)
Kelly Brogan, the partner of Sayer Ki, who encourages people not to wear masks

Sayer Ji runs a popular alternative health website, GreenMedInfo.com, and affiliated social media accounts that promote pseudoscience and anti-vaccine misinformation (pictured left). Right: Kelly Brogan, the partner of Sayer Ki, who encourages people not to wear masks

A Twitter spokesperson said that it is unable to take action against every tweet that contains 'incomplete or disputed information about Covid-19', adding that for a post to be removed it must meet certain criteria.

The post 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,' the spokesman said. 

'Since introducing our Covid-19 guidance last year, we have removed more than 22,400 Tweets and challenged 11.7 million accounts worldwide,' they added. 

Pictured: Christiane Northrup, an obstetrics and gynaecology physician who has embraced alternative medicine and anti-vaccine conspiracies, according to the report
Ben Tapper is a chiropractor with a growing following on social media. He has routinely posted COVID disinformation and spoken out against wearing masks, the report says

Pictured left: Christiane Northrup, an obstetrics and gynaecology physician who has embraced alternative medicine and anti-vaccine conspiracies, according to the report. Right:Ben Tapper is a chiropractor with a growing following on social media. He has routinely posted COVID disinformation and spoken out against wearing masks, the report says 

Kevin Jenkins is an anti-vaccine activist with a growing social media presence who has appeared at public events with Robert F. Kennedy. He has previously called vaccines a 'conspiracy' to 'wipe out' black people, the report says

Kevin Jenkins is an anti-vaccine activist with a growing social media presence who has appeared at public events with Robert F. Kennedy. He has previously called vaccines a 'conspiracy' to 'wipe out' black people, the report says

On Wednesday, the Democratic attorneys general for 12 states demanded Facebook and Twitter 'take immediate steps' to stop the spread of what they say is false information about COVID-19 vaccines on the social media sites.

In a letter to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter's Jack Dorsey, the attorneys general said on Wednesday that 'anti-vaxxers' lacking medical expertise and often motivated by financial gain have used the platforms to downplay the danger of COVID-19 and exaggerate the risks of vaccination. 

They accused the social media giants of doing too little to stop people from using their platforms to spread the false information that coronavirus vaccines are unsafe. 

They called on both companies to enforce their own community guidelines by removing or flagging vaccine misinformation.  

The letter quotes figures from the Center for Countering Digital Hate that claims there are 59 million subscribers to anti-vaccine accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube. The letter also adds the disinformation dozen claims from the CCDH and Anti-Vax Watch alliance.

It also said some misinformation targets black communities and others of color where vaccination rates are lagging.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg
Twitter's Jack Dorsey

In a letter to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg (left) and Twitter's Jack Dorsey (right), the attorneys general demanded on Wednesday that the companies crack down on anti-vaccine posts

The Democratic attorneys general for 12 states, including Connecticut's William Tong, have demanded Facebook and Twitter 'take immediate steps' to stop the spread of what they say is false information about COVID-19 vaccines

The Democratic attorneys general for 12 states, including Connecticut's William Tong, have demanded Facebook and Twitter 'take immediate steps' to stop the spread of what they say is false information about COVID-19 vaccines

'Given anti-vaxxers' reliance on your platforms, you are uniquely positioned to prevent the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of millions of Americans in our states and that will prolong our road to recovery,' the letter said.

The letter was signed by the attorneys general of Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia.

Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever said the company has removed millions of pieces of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation and tries to combat 'vaccine hesitancy' by regularly directing users to reliable information from health authorities.

Twitter said it has removed more than 22,400 tweets in connection with its policy toward COVID-19 posts and prioritizes removing content that could cause 'real-world' harm. 

It comes as the CEOs of social media giants Facebook, Twitter and Google prepare to face a new grilling by Congress Thursday, one focused on their efforts to prevent their platforms from spreading falsehoods and inciting violence.

That's been a familiar theme for lawmakers over the past few years. But the pressure is even higher following the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, the rise in COVID vaccine misinformation and united Democratic control of Congress and the White House. The latter could make legislative action more likely, although it remains far from a sure thing. 

Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever said the company has removed millions of pieces of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation and tries to combat 'vaccine hesitancy' by regularly directing users to reliable information from health authorities (an example is pictured above)

Facebook spokeswoman Dani Lever said the company has removed millions of pieces of COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation and tries to combat 'vaccine hesitancy' by regularly directing users to reliable information from health authorities (an example is pictured above)

Pictured: Conspiracy theorists take part in a rally in New York City on March 20, holding signs that say 'arrest Bill Gates' and 'They are lying to you'

Pictured: Conspiracy theorists take part in a rally in New York City on March 20, holding signs that say 'arrest Bill Gates' and 'They are lying to you'

As malicious conspiracy theories continue to spread, lawmakers are pounding the social media companies over their market dominance, harvesting of user data and practices that some believe actually encourage the spread of engaging but potentially harmful misinformation. Some Republicans have also alleged, without proof, censorship and political bias against conservatives as another reason to rein in the enormous firms.

There's increasing support in Congress for imposing new curbs on legal protections regarding speech posted on their platforms. 

Both Republicans and Democrats - including President Joe Biden as a candidate - have called for stripping away some of the protections under so-called Section 230 of a 25-year-old telecommunications law that shields internet companies from liability for what users post.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Twitter chief Jack Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai - whose company owns YouTube - will testify in a virtual hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The session's title leaves little doubt as to the majority Democrats' stance: 'Disinformation Nation: Social Media's Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation.'

Pictured: An effigy of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg (C), dressed as a January 6, 2021, insurrectionist is placed near the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2021

Pictured: An effigy of Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg (C), dressed as a January 6, 2021, insurrectionist is placed near the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on March 25, 2021

These executives testified on the subject at several congressional hearings last year, sometimes under threat of subpoena. This time they face tougher dynamics and may be called to account for earlier promises. In a Senate hearing shortly after the election in November, for instance, Zuckerberg and Dorsey gave lawmakers assurances of vigorous action against disinformation.

Former President Donald Trump enjoyed special treatment on Facebook and Twitter until January, despite spreading misinformation, pushing false claims of voting fraud, and promulgating hate. Facebook banned Trump indefinitely a day after rioters egged on by Trump swarmed the Capitol. Twitter soon followed, permanently disabling Trump's favored bullhorn.

Banning a sitting president from social media was an unprecedented step. Of course, so was Trump's heavy use of Twitter to lambaste opponents, laud supporters and spread false claims to more than 80 million followers. He was also only the second president to have a social media presence while in office.

Facebook hasn't yet decided whether it will banish the former president permanently. The company punted that decision to its quasi-independent Oversight Board - sort of a Supreme Court of Facebook enforcement - which is expected to rule on the matter next month.

Republicans have stepped up their complaints of alleged censorship and anti-conservative bias at the social media platforms. Researchers say there's no evidence that the social media giants are biased against conservative news, posts or other material, or that they favor one side of political debate over another.

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on "An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors" in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on October 23, 2019 (file photo)

Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on "An Examination of Facebook and Its Impact on the Financial Services and Housing Sectors" in the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington, DC on October 23, 2019 (file photo)

Democrats, meanwhile, are largely focused on hate speech and incitement that can spawn real-world violence. An outside report issued this week found that Facebook has allowed groups - many tied to QAnon, boogaloo and militia movements - to extol violence during the 2020 election and in the weeks leading up to the deadly riots on the Capitol.

The report from Avaaz, a nonprofit advocacy group that says it seeks to protect democracies from misinformation, identified several hundred pages and groups on Facebook that it says spread violence-glorifying material to a combined following of 32 million users. Facebook acknowledged that its policy enforcement 'isn't perfect,' but said the report distorts its work against violent extremism and misinformation.

The tech CEOs plan a spirited defense of the liability shield under Section 230, saying it has helped make the internet the forum of free expression that it is today. Zuckerberg, however, will also again urge Congress to update that law to ensure it's working as intended. 

He's adding a specific suggestion: Congress could require internet platforms to gain legal protection only by proving that their systems for identifying illegal content are up to snuff.

'Instead of being granted immunity, platforms should be required to demonstrate that they have systems in place for identifying unlawful content and removing it,' Zuckerberg said in written testimony prepared for Thursday's hearing.

Pictured: A man holds a sign and dresses as a plague doctor to encourage people to be vaccinated and help prevent prolonging the COVID-19 pandemic March 25. The sign reads 'Anti-vaxxers are prolonging the pandemic', followed the the Anti Vax Watch website, the organisation that co-authored the report on the 'disinformation dozen'

Pictured: A man holds a sign and dresses as a plague doctor to encourage people to be vaccinated and help prevent prolonging the COVID-19 pandemic March 25. The sign reads 'Anti-vaxxers are prolonging the pandemic', followed the the Anti Vax Watch website, the organisation that co-authored the report on the 'disinformation dozen'

It's not clear lawmakers will buy that argument. Sen. Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, charged that Zuckerberg's plan would entrench giant firms at the expense of smaller rivals. 'Everyone working to address real issues online should be deeply wary about Mark Zuckerberg's proposals for new regulations,' Wyden said in a statement.

Pichai and Dorsey have urged caution about any changes to Section 230. Regulation is important to protect the open web while curbing its harmful use, Pichai said in his written testimony. But he warned that many reform proposals 'would not serve that objective well,' and could inadvertently harm free expression and limit the platforms' ability to protect users.

Dorsey didn't directly address the issue in his written statement, but did respond to recent questions about how Twitter should handle world leaders who violate its policies. 'We are currently re-examining our approach to world leaders and are soliciting feedback from the public,' he said in the statement.

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