I’ve been writing about anti-vaxxers for a dozen years now, warning of the threat to public health that they represent. Today, though, the threat is far greater than it was in the past, because now we’re in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and vaccines are our only tool out of it. Merely educating the public on the benefits of vaccines isn’t working in the face of a deluge of misinformation from anti-vaxxers. It’s time to take away their platforms.
A new report from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) reveals that 65% of the anti-vaccine disinformation online can be traced to just twelve people. This offers hope that we can actually do something: by removing a tiny number of accounts, millions of lives can be saved. The social media platforms have the power to do this, and they could do it virtually overnight.
(No, I’m not calling for censorship, and no, they don’t have any 1st amendment rights to spread their lies. I’ll get to that below.)
A bit of background: the modern anti-vax movement started in the late 1990s, focusing primarily on childhood vaccines, especially the vaccines against measles, mumps, and rubella, and using (initially) a fraudulent study published in The Lancet to scare people about a non-existent link between vaccines and autism. That study was eventually retracted, and the lead author, Andrew Wakefield, lost his medical license after his fraud came to light.
But the damage was done. Anti-vaxxers and the misinformation they spread on social media caused vaccination rates to drop in the US and the UK, and in other countries, and diseases such as measles, which we had essentially eliminated in the US, started to re-emerge. Tragically, some people died of completely preventable diseases. One thing we’ve learned from the past 20 years is that once anti-vaxxers start spreading their misinformation, it’s incredibly difficult to correct the falsehoods.
Anti-vaxxers today have turned their social media efforts towards attacking the Covid-19 vaccines. (They actually started attacking the vaccines before the vaccines even existed, a kind of reality-twisting that would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.)
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Covid-19 has already killed millions, and millions more may die before we get it under control. The only realistic way to end the pandemic is through vaccination. Fortunately, we now have multiple highly effective vaccines, as I’ve written about several times in the past year. Unfortunately, a large segment of the population has been grievously misled, and many people say they will never get vaccinated. The pandemic might persist for years, hurting all of us, if these people continue to refuse vaccines.
The anti-vax movement constantly spreads lies, rumors, and misinformation in an effort to scare people away from vaccination. I won’t repeat the lies here, because merely stating them gives them more credibility than they deserve. But the anti-vaxxers and the social media platforms that spread their messages must be stopped. As President Biden said this past Friday, “they’re killing people.”
One particularly unfortunate development in the US is that the anti-vax position has become hyper-political. Even though Trump has claimed credit for developing the vaccines, and even though he and his family were vaccinated as soon as the vaccines became available, many leaders of the Republican party and on right-wing media such as Fox News have embraced anti-vaccine positions, and have told their millions of followers to refuse vaccination. Logically, it makes no sense that vaccine refusal has become a political issue, but it has.
The good news is that we might actually be able to stop the anti-vaxxers. The CCDH report on the Disinformation Dozen shows that these 12 people, who collectively have 59 million followers, are responsible for 73% of the anti-vax content on Facebook and 65% of anti-vaccine messages on other major platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube. This in turn means that if the social media platforms will simply shut down their accounts (and other sites that they control, such as the misleadingly-named Children’s Health Defense and National Vaccine Information Center), we will see a dramatic reduction in false vaccine information, virtually overnight.
So who are the Disinformation Dozen? Here they are:
- 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
- Kevin Jenkins
I’ve written about Mercola and RFK Jr. before, multiple times, but not the others. I’m intentionally not providing links to their anti-vax accounts, which include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and dedicated websites, because any links simply add to their influence. Mercola, for example, has become wealthy by selling dietary supplements with unproven and often bogus health claims, and by pushing anti-vaccine myths, as I wrote all the way back in 2010. Perhaps if people realized this, they wouldn’t be so quick to believe him.
It’s time to de-platform the anti-vaccine Disinformation Dozen. In our current world, this can only happen if the companies themselves–Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google–delete their accounts. One might expect that these companies would have already done this, based on their own policies, but as the CCDH 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.”
This isn’t a free speech or First Amendment issue; private companies aren’t required to provide a platform for anyone. And I’m not calling for the Disinformation Dozen to be arrested or legally punished for spreading misinformation, even though it is harmful, and even though they are indirectly killing people by their actions. But private companies can kick anyone off their platforms, whenever they want, and if these companies care at all about public health, and about the health of their own customers, they’ll delete all the accounts associated with these 12 people.
Finally, let me get a bit philosophical. It’s astonishing that we’ve created a society where we appear to be powerless to stop the spread of lies and distortions that are actually killing people. Our technology allows anti-vaxxers to reach millions of people and to convince those people to take actions that harm not only themselves, but all of us, because they’re allowing the virus to spread and mutate. It appears that our governments simply don’t have the power to force Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, and Instagram to shut down these accounts, so instead we rely on the whims of a tiny number of people who run those companies.
Should governments step in here and force the companies to take action? I don’t know, but so far the companies themselves have failed to take action on their own. Germany and France seem to have the best solution so far: by requiring vaccines in order to eat at restaurants and travel on planes and trains, they’ve convinced large swaths of their populations, including formerly vaccine-hesitant people, to get vaccinated. The US, by contrast, has 50 different policies for 50 states, including some policies that are straight-up anti-vaccine. There must be a better way.