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Big Tech CEOs Waffle on Banning the 12 Major Anti-Vaxxers

Anti-vax conspiracist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in Berlin in August 2020.

Anti-vax conspiracist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in Berlin in August 2020.
Photo: Sean Gallup (Getty Images)

After a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) and Anti-Vax Watch found that a huge percentage of misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines can be traced back to just a dozen people, the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter told Congress they weren’t sure they would ban them.

The CCDH/Anti-Vax Watch report found that some 73 percent of misinformation on Facebook, and 17 percent on Twitter, is linked to a group of 12 accounts including prominent anti-vaxxers Joseph Mercola, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Ty & Charlene Bollinger, Sherri Tenpenny, and Rizza Islam. The report also identified what it concluded were clear violations of platform policies on the spread of disinformation about the novel coronavirus pandemic and vaccines in general. The report was prominently cited in a letter by 12 state attorneys general to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg demanding they do more to fight coronavirus-related misinformation; according to the Washington Post, this mirrors internal Facebook research showing relatively tiny groups of users are primarily responsible for flooding the site with anti-vaccine content.

“Analysis of a sample of anti-vaccine content that was shared or posted on Facebook and Twitter a total of 812,000 times between 1 February and 16 March 2021 shows that 65 percent of anti-vaccine content is attributable to the Disinformation Dozen,” the report states. “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.”

“Research conducted by CCDH last year has shown that platforms fail to act on 95 percent of the Covid and vaccine misinformation reported to them, and we have uncovered evidence that Instagram’s algorithm actively recommends similar misinformation,” they added. “Tracking of 425 anti-vaccine accounts by CCDH shows that their total following across platforms now stands at 59.2 million as a result of these failures.”

At Thursday’s hearing on disinformation in the House Committee on Energy and Commerce featuring Dorsey, Zuckerberg, and Alphabet/Google CEO Sundar Pichai, all three either hedged or simply reiterated that their companies have rules when pressed by Representative Mike Doyle on the dozen anti-vaxxers, per TechCrunch.

Zuckerberg said Facebook would need to see specific examples of the content in question, after which Doyle interrupted him. Pichai pivoted to a statistic about how many YouTube videos with misleading information about the pandemic the company had also deleted but added that “some” otherwise infringing content was allowed “if it’s people’s personal experiences.” (Doyle also cut him off after re-asking the question.) Dorsey simply stated Twitter moderators “remove everything against our policy.”

Facebook has previously raised a similar defense to Pichai, with Facebook’s head of health Kang-Xing Jin writing in an editorial last month in the San Francisco Chronicle that “Vaccine conversations are nuanced, so content can’t always be clearly divided into helpful and harmful. It’s hard to draw the line on posts that contain people’s personal experiences with vaccines… We are working with experts to identify and remove widely debunked hoaxes that could put people at risk for harm, while also providing the facts from trusted sources that can help us combat vaccine misinformation during this critical time.”

Antivax misinformation on social media and video sites like YouTube is believed to be by no means the only, but a major factor in what medical researchers call vaccine hesitancy across the country. Research has shown a strong link between anti-vax content on social media sites and the propagation of skepticism about the effectiveness and safety of vaccines. Polling has shown that double-digit percentages of Americans say they won’t take a coronavirus vaccine, with a clear partisan bent where Republicans and Donald Trump supporters are more opposed. However, the number of people who claim they are unwilling to get vaccinated has dropped rapidly as it becomes more widely available and health officials work to reassure the public vaccines on the market are safe and effective, CNN reported earlier this month.

“Coronavirus vaccines only work if people actually get them. Pseudoscience coronavirus conspiracy theories peddled by a small number of uninformed anti-vaxxers have reached tens of millions of social media followers,” Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, one of the state attorneys general who signed the letter to Facebook and Twitter, told the Washington Post in a statement. “These posts are in flagrant violation of Facebook and Twitter policies. Facebook and Twitter must fully and immediately enforce their own policies, or risk prolonging this pandemic.”

Facebook told Engadget in a statement that actions it takes to limit the reach of accounts spreading misinformation include “reducing their distribution or removing them from our platform” and that it has “already taken action against some of the groups in this report.” A Twitter spokesperson told the site it does not act against “every instance of misinformation” but removes tweets that pose a risk of “serious harm.”

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