WOODLAND HILLS, CA – MAY 16: A protester holds an anti-vaccination sign in support of the President … [+]
I have been writing about anti-Vaxxers for a dozen years now, warning of the public health threats they pose. However, the threat is much greater today than it was in the past, as we are now in the midst of a deadly pandemic and vaccines are our only tool. Just educating the public about the benefits of vaccines doesn’t work in the face of a deluge of misinformation from anti-Vaxxers. It’s time to take their platforms away.
A new report from the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) shows that 65% of online disinformation about vaccination can be traced back to just twelve people. This gives hope that something we can actually do: removing a tiny number of accounts can save millions of lives. The social media platforms have the power to do this, and they could do it practically overnight.
(No, I am not asking for censorship, and no, they do not have 1st Amendment rights to spread their lies. I will go into that below.)
A bit of background: The modern anti-Vax movement began in the late 1990s and was mostly focused on vaccines for children, especially the measles, mumps and rubella vaccines, and took advantage of (initially) a fraudulent study published in The Lancet was published to scare people into a nonexistent link between vaccines and autism. That study was eventually withdrawn and the lead author, Andrew Wakefield, lost his license to practice medicine after his fraud was exposed.
But the damage was done. Anti-Vaxxer and the misinformation they spread on social media caused vaccination rates to drop in the US and UK, as well as other countries, and diseases like measles, which we had essentially eliminated in the US, reappeared. Tragically, some people died from completely preventable diseases. One thing we have learned from the last 20 years is that once anti-Vaxxers start spreading their misinformation, it is incredibly difficult to correct the untruths.
Anti-Vaxxers today focused their efforts on social media to target the Covid-19 vaccines. (They actually started attacking the vaccines before the vaccines even existed, kind of a twist of reality that would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.)
Covid-19 has already killed millions of people, and millions more could die before we get it under control. The only realistic way to end the pandemic is with vaccination. Fortunately, we now have several highly effective vaccines, as I wrote several times over the past year. Unfortunately, a large section of the population has been misled and many people say they will never get vaccinated. The pandemic could last for years and hurt us all if these people keep rejecting vaccines.
The anti-Vax movement is constantly spreading lies, rumors, and misinformation to deter people from vaccinating. I am not going to repeat the lies here because they are more believable than they deserve by their allegation alone. But the anti-Vaxxers and the social media platforms that are spreading their messages must stop. As President Biden said last Friday, “You are killing people”.
A particularly unfortunate development in the US is that the anti-Vax position has become hyperpolitical. Although Trump claimed the vaccine development and although he and his family were vaccinated as soon as the vaccines became available, many Republican Party leaders and right-wing media outlets like Fox News have taken anti-vaccine positions and have theirs Millions of followers told to refuse vaccinations. Logically, it doesn’t make sense that vaccine denial has become a political issue, but it does.
The good news is that we may 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, account for 73% of anti-Vax content on Facebook and 65% of anti-vaccine news on other major platforms, including Twitter , Instagram, and YouTube. This, in turn, means that if the social media platforms simply shut down their accounts (and other websites they control such as the misleadingly named Children’s Health Defense and the National Vaccine Information Center) we will see a dramatic reduction in false vaccine information, almost overnight.
Who is the Disinformation Dozen? Here you are:
- Joseph Mercola
- Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
- Ty and Charlene Bollinger
- Sherri Tenpenny
- Rizza Islam |
- Rashid Buttar
- Erin Elizabeth
- Sayer Ji
- Kelly Brogan
- Christiane Nordrup
- Ben Tapper
- Kevin Jenkins
I’ve written about Mercola and RFK Jr. several times, but not about the others. I purposely do not provide links to their Anti-Vax accounts, which include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and special websites, as all the links simply add to their influence. Mercola, for example, got rich selling supplements with unproven and often false health claims and spreading anti-vaccine myths, as I wrote back in 2010. Maybe if people knew this, they might not be quick to believe him.
It’s time to separate the anti-vaccine disinformation dozen from the platform. In today’s world, this can only happen if the companies themselves – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Google – delete their accounts. One might expect these companies to have already done so based on their own guidelines, but as the CCDH report notes:
This is not a question of freedom of speech or the First Amendment; Private companies don’t have to offer anyone a platform. And I am not asking that the Disinformation Dozen be arrested or legally punished for spreading misinformation, even if it is harmful and even though they indirectly kill people through their actions. But private companies can kick anyone off their platforms whenever they want, and if those companies care about the public health and the health of their own customers at all, they delete all accounts associated with those 12 people.
Finally, let me get a little philosophical. It is amazing that we have created a society where we are seemingly powerless to stop the spread of lies and distortions that actually kill people. Our technology enables antivaxxers to reach millions of people and convince those people to take action that will harm not only themselves but all of us by allowing 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. Instead, we rely on the whims of a tiny number of people running these companies.
Should governments step in and force companies to act? I don’t know, but the companies themselves have so far failed to take action themselves. Germany and France seem to have the best solution so far: by requiring vaccines for eating in restaurants and for traveling on planes and trains, they have convinced large parts of their population, including people who were previously hesitant to vaccinate, to get vaccinated . In contrast, the US has 50 different guidelines for 50 states, including some guidelines that are directly against the vaccine. There has to be a better way.