Disinformation Dozen: The fight against anti-vaxxers on social media

Empty covid19 vaccine viles.  File photo -
Empty covid19 vaccine viles. File photo -

The global battle to get the world's population of over 7.7 billion people to voluntarily take covid19 vaccines is being undermined by medical experts and business magnates seeking to profit from their aggressive anti-vaccine campaign.

Here in Trinidad and Tobago (TT), media organisations such as the TT Publishers and Broadcasters Association, corporate bodies like Angostura, Ansa Mc Al Group, banks, supermarkets, religious groups and the government and a host of other organisations have been pounding the message for right-thinking people to step forward and get vaccinated as it is the only way to save lives, reopen the economy and return to life as we knew it prior to mid-March 2020 when the pandemic was declared.

Vaccine hesitancy and vaccine efficacy/branding are two of the major hurdles the government have to overcome to convince even health workers, who are in the front-lines of the danger zone, to take the jab. Its latest rollout of Sinopharm vaccines which began in July is not going according to plan, as the anticipated number of people seeking to be vaccinated is just not measuring up.

In other countries, incentives of cash, free meals and other rewards are being offered to people to take the vaccine, something that the government may have no other option to follow.

The growing trend for private-sector employees to pay for PCR tests every fortnight (average $800 per test) if they are not vaccinated is another coercive measure aimed at compelling people to get vaccinated.

Apart from politicians seeking to score points, health authorities have also been fighting a daily battle to respond to some of the most asinine queries from even the media on unfounded claims posted by anti-vaxxers on social media.

With the number of deaths attributed to covid19 standing at 1,070, with 38,557 cases over the last 16 and a half months, the target to vaccinate two thirds of the 1.4 million people here before year's end seems to be a daunting task.

At last count, 191,881 people were fully vaccinated and 382,149 had received their first shot, according to the Ministry of Health release on Friday.

Of even more concern is the rapid spread of the more potent delta variant, which is reversing the reopening of economies in first world countries and real risk of it entering TT's borders.

A 40-page report commissioned by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a UK/US non-profit non-governmental organisation "that seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation" identified 12 of the top anti-vaxxers "who play leading roles in spreading misinformation about covid vaccines."

Cover of The Disinformation Dozen, a report on 12 anti-vaxxers done by Center for Countering Digital Hate -

In the report, dated March 24, entitled The Disinformation Dozen, the 12 people were selected because they have a combined audience of more than 59 million followers on the social media platforms of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

An analysis of their combined anti-vaccine content posted between February and mid-March show that they are responsible for a staggering 65 per cent of all anti-vaccine content on social media and 73 per cent of all anti-vaccine content on Facebook alone.

"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," according to the executive summary of the report.

Further analysis of the content posted by the 12 shows the group of social media influencers have targeted black, Latino and Native American communities to spread their misinformation, leading to a greater number of deaths and severe illness among those people.

According to Imran Ahmed, CEO of the organisation, these individuals have been "living in full view of the public on the internet... who do not have relevant medical expertise and have their own pockets to line.

"Facebook, Google and Twitter have put policies into place to prevent the spread of vaccine misinformation; yet to date, all have failed to satisfactorily enforce those policies. All have been particularly ineffective at removing harmful and dangerous misinformation about coronavirus vaccines, though the scale of misinformation on Facebook, and thus the impact of their failure, is larger. Further, they have all failed to remove the accounts of prominent anti-vaxxers who have repeatedly violated their terms of service, as documented in later sections of this report," Ahmed said.

The researchers found Facebook’s own internal analysis of vaccine hesitant content on its platform is likely to underestimate the influence of leading anti-vaxxers by failing to address the ultimate source of this content, and by the recorded failure of its algorithms to identify content concerning vaccines.

The group suggested "the most effective and efficient way to stop the dissemination of harmful information is to de platform the most highly visible repeat offenders, who we term the Disinformation Dozen. This should also include the organisations these individuals control or fund, as well as any backup accounts they have established to evade removal."

It also suggested that "users should be presented with warning screens when attempting to follow links to sites known to host vaccine misinformation, and users exposed to posts containing misinformation should be shown effective corrections."

And urged Facebook not allow private and secret anti-vaccine groups where dangerous anti-vaccine disinformation can be spread with impunity.

Two weeks ago, US President Joe Biden told reporters outside the White House that Facebook and other companies were “killing people” by not doing more to combat covid19 vaccine misinformation on their platforms.

“The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” Biden said. “And they’re [the tech platforms] killing people,” according to the Washington Post online.

The report identified the 12 most influential anti-vaxxers as:

1. Joseph Mercola

2. Robert F Kennedy, Jr

3. Ty and Charlene Bollinger

4. Sherri Tenpenny

5. Rizza Islam

6. Rashid Buttar

7. Erin Elizabeth

8. Sayer Ji

9. Kelly Brogan

10. Christiane Northrup

11. Ben Tapper

12. Kevin Jenkins


"Disinformation Dozen: The fight against anti-vaxxers on social media"

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