I have been writing about anti-vaxxers for a dozen years warning of the public health threat they pose. Today, however, the threat is much greater than before, because we are now in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and vaccines are our only tool for that. Simply educating the public about the benefits of vaccines will not work when anti-vaxxers have taken over false information. It is time to take their platform.
New non-profit center report to fight digital hatred (CCDH) reveals that 65% of online data against vaccines can only be traced to twelve people. This gives hope that we can really do something: by removing a small number of accounts, millions of lives can be saved. Social media platforms have the power to do this, and they can do it practically overnight.
(No, I don’t demand censorship, and no, they don’t have any first right to change to spread their lies. I’ll get to that below.)
A little background: the modern anti-vax movement began in the late 1990s, focusing primarily on childhood vaccines, especially measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines, and using (originally) fraudulent research published Lancet to intimidate people into the link between vaccinations and autism. The investigation was eventually canceled, and editor-in-chief Andrew Wakefield lost his medical license after the fraud was uncovered.
But the damage happened. Anti-vaxxers and the false information they spread on social media caused the number of vaccinations to fall in the United States and the United Kingdom, as well as in other countries, and diseases such as measles, which we had essentially eradicated in the United States, began to reappear. Tragically, some people died of completely preventable diseases. One thing we’ve learned over the last 20 years is that when anti-vaxxers start spreading false information, it’s incredibly difficult to correct lies.
Today, anti-vaxxers have reversed their efforts on social media to attack Covid-19 vaccines. (They really started attacking vaccines before vaccines existed, a kind of reversal of reality that would be fun if it weren’t so tragic.)
Covid-19 has already killed millions, and millions more may die before we get it under control. The only realistic way to end a pandemic is through vaccination. Fortunately, we now have several very effective vaccines, as I have written several times over the past year. Unfortunately, a large portion of the population is misled, and many people say they never get vaccinated. The pandemic could continue for years and harm us all if these people continue to refuse vaccines.
The anti-vaccine movement is constantly spreading lies, rumors and misinformation in an effort to scare people off vaccinations. I will not repeat the lies here because simply stating them gives them more credibility than they deserve. But anti-vaxers and social media platforms that spread the word must stop. As President Biden said last Friday, “they are killing people.”
One particularly unfortunate development in the United States is that the anti-vax stance has become hyperpolicy. Although Trump has demanded credit for the development of vaccines, and although he and his family were vaccinated as soon as the vaccines were available, many Republican leaders and the right-wing media like Fox News, have adopted anti-vaccine positionsand have told millions of their followers to refuse vaccinations. It does not make sense that the refusal of vaccines has become a political issue, but it has.
The good news is that we can really be able to stop anti-vaxers. CCDH Report Disinformation Dozen shows that these 12 people are together 59 million followers, are responsible for 73% of Facebook’s vax-like content and 65% of anti-vaccine messages on other important platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. This, in turn, means that if social media platforms simply close their accounts (and other sites they control, such as the misleadingly named Children’s Health Defense and the National Vaccination Information Center), we will see a dramatic decline in false vaccine information, virtually overnight.
So who disinformation is a 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. several times before, but I don’t remember. I do not intentionally provide links to their anti-vax accounts, which include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and separate websites, as all links simply increase their influence. Mercola, for example, has become wealthy by selling dietary supplements with unproven and often false health claims and pushing anti-vaccine myths, as I always wrote in 2010. Maybe if people realized this, they wouldn’t believe him so quickly.
It is time to remove the Disinformation Dozen program for anti-vaccines. In today’s world, this can only happen if the companies themselves – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google – delete their accounts. It can be expected that these companies would have already done this on the basis of their own policies, but so The CCDH report states:
“Despite repeated breaches of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter service agreements, nine disinformation information remains on all three platforms, while only three have been comprehensively removed from one platform.”
This is not freedom of speech or the first amendment; private companies do not have to provide a platform for anyone. And I am not demanding that Desinformation Dozen be arrested or legally punished for disseminating false information, even if it is harmful, and even if they indirectly kill people through their actions. But private companies can kick anyone off their platforms at any time, and if those companies care at all about public health and the health of their own customers, they will delete all the accounts associated with those 12 people.
Let me finally become a little philosophical. It is amazing that we have created a society where we seem to be powerless to stop the spread of lies and distortions that really kill people. With our technology, vaxsters can reach millions of people and get those people to act with actions that harm not only themselves, but all of us because they allow the virus to spread and mutate. It seems that our governments simply don’t have the power to force Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google, and Instagram to close these accounts, so instead we rely on the likes of a small number of people running these companies.
Should governments step in here and force companies to act? I don’t know, but so far companies haven’t been able to operate alone. Germany and France seem to have the best solution so far: requiring vaccines to eat in restaurants and travel by plane and train, they have persuaded large numbers of their populations, including people who previously reluctantly vaccinated, to be vaccinated. The U.S., on the other hand, has 50 different policies for 50 states, including some policies that are directly against vaccines. There must be a better way.