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Just 12 anti-vaxxers are responsible for spreading most of anti-vaccine content on social media: study

The ‘Disinformation Dozen’ includes members as such Robert F. Kennedy, Erin Elizabeth, Joseph Mercola, and Ty and Charlene Bollinger

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A mere dozen prominent anti-vaxxers are responsible for most of the anti-vaccine content circulating on social media, a new study has found.

The Disinformation Dozen, as the study dubbed them, are responsible for 73 per cent of all anti-vaccine content shared on Facebook and 17 per cent of tweets on Twitter.

Conducted by the not-for-profit Center for Countering Digital Hate and Anti-Vax Watch, which monitors the anti-vaccine industry, the study analyzed 812,000 posts extracted from Facebook and Twitter between Feb. 1 and March 16.

Researchers found that 65 per cent of all posts could be traced back to 12 accounts representing major anti-vaccine personalities: 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.

“Living in full view of the public on the internet are a small group of individuals who do not have relevant medical expertise and have their own pockets to line,” said Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, “who are abusing social media platforms to misrepresent the threat of COVID and spread misinformation about the safety of vaccines.

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Anti-vaccine activists on Facebook, Youtube, Instagram and Twitter, in total, reach more than 59 million followers, the report says, making these platforms crucial to community members spreading anti-vaccine content.

Joseph Mercola, an American alternative medicine advocate, alone has a following of 3.6 million users on all his social media accounts.

While many people on social media who share anti-vaccine accounts may not necessarily follow any of these accounts, the analysis suggests that the majority of the anti-vaccine posts originated with members of the Disinformation Dozen.

“The key protagonists in the ‘anti-vaxx industry’ are a coherent group of professional propagandists,” Ahmed wrote in an article published in Nature Medicine on March 15.

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“These are people running multi-million-dollar organizations, incorporated mainly in the USA, with as many as 60 staff each. They produce training manuals for activists, tailor their messages for different audiences and arrange meetings akin to annual trades conferences, like any other industry.”

Kennedy for example, has shared several links on his Facebook account, promoting misinformation that the COVID-19 vaccine is linked to a higher incidence of death.

He also violated social media rules after he shared information claiming that the vaccine was dangerous to pregnant women.

Some members have had some of their social media accounts suspended. Erin Elizabeth, who runs alternative health news site Health Nut and is the partner of Mercola, was banned from Facebook last month. Her husband remains active on all accounts.

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Facebook has also banned accounts belonging to Kelly Brogan, Rizza Islam and Sherri Tenpenny.

Instagram and Twitter have suspended a handful of the members, but several have been allowed to continue to share and post content from all of their pages.

“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 points out.

Social media platforms, it adds, have failed to censor the spread of vaccine misinformation. Previous research conducted by the center in 2020 found that platforms “fail to act on 95 per cent of the Covid and vaccine information reported to them.”

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Instagram’s algorithm, the report said, also actively recommends similar misinformation.

“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,” Ahmed warned in a news release in March.

The report pleads for Big Tech leaders to pursue stronger action against anti-vaxxers, such as enforcing a two-strike rule against accounts sharing the information, ban the “mostly highly visible repeat offenders” and anti-vaccine groups and present warning screens to users attempting to follow a link to a page disseminating anti-vaccine information.

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