12 accounts behind most online vaccine misinformation, COVID conspiracy theories

Report finds ‘disinformation dozen’ responsible for 65% of anti-vaccine content on social media, reaching more than 59 million followers on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter

Demonstrators participate in a vehicle caravan with a sign reading 'Trust in God not vaccines' outside City Hall, on April 22, 2020, in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)
Demonstrators participate in a vehicle caravan with a sign reading 'Trust in God not vaccines' outside City Hall, on April 22, 2020, in Los Angeles, California. (Mario Tama/Getty Images/AFP)

The vast majority of online misinformation and conspiracy theories about the pandemic and coronavirus vaccines originates with just 12 accounts, according to a new report.

Those people, dubbed the “disinformation dozen” by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), include Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — nephew of former United States president John F. Kennedy — and Joseph Mercola, a well-known anti-vaxxer who peddles health supplements he claims can cure disease.

The other named perpetrators were the joint account of Ty and Charlene Bollinger, as well as the social media accounts of Sherri Tenpenny, Rizza Islam, Rashid Buttar, Erin Elizabeth, Sayer Ji, Kelly Brogan, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper and Kevin Jenkins.

Many of them are linked to the religious and/or wellness communities.

Elizabeth, who is partner to Mercola, also posted antisemitic conspiracy theories involving the Rothschild family, the report said.

The report said that the organization analyzed over 812,000 posts on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16, 2021, and found that 65% of anti-vaccine content was ultimately attributable to those 12 individuals.

In this Dec. 12, 2019 file photo, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. attends the 2019 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Ripple of Hope Awards at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York. (Greg Allen/Invision/AP, File)

When looking at Facebook alone, the 12 peddlers of misinformation accounted for 73% of the content.

The CCDH said that those 12 influencers “do not have relevant medical expertise and have their own pockets to line,” while spreading misinformation about vaccine safety, as well as downplaying the danger of the pandemic.

The report said the anti-vaccine activists are reaching more than 59 million followers on Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Twitter.

Citing its own research carried out in 2020, the watchdog said social media platforms were failing to act on 95% of the pandemic and vaccine misinformation that was reported to them.

In this Sept. 19, 2020, file photo, a protester holds up a placard as they take part in a ‘Resist and Act for Freedom’ protest against a mandatory coronavirus vaccine, wearing masks, social distancing and a second lockdown, in Trafalgar Square, London. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

“Social media companies must now follow their repeated promises with concrete action,” the report said. “Updated policies and statements hold little value unless they are strongly and consistently enforced.

“With the vast majority of harmful content being spread by a select number of accounts, removing those few most dangerous individuals and groups can significantly reduce the amount of disinformation being spread across platforms, it added.

After the White House received the report last week, US President Joe Biden said Friday that social media companies are “killing people” by failing to police misinformation on their platforms about COVID-19 vaccines, which have repeatedly been found to be both safe and effective.

Biden’s comments came a day after US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy declared misinformation about the vaccines a threat to public health, and as US officials advised that deaths and serious illness from the virus are almost entirely preventable thanks to the vaccines.

US President Joe Biden tries to hear questions shouted by reporters as he heads to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, July 16, 2021, to spend the weekend at Camp David. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Biden, asked if he had a message for platforms like Facebook where false or misleading information about the coronavirus vaccines has spread, told reporters, “They’re killing people.”

“The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated,” he said.

Speaking Thursday, Murthy said misinformation about COVID-19, deemed an “infodemic” by the World Health Organization, was deadly.

“Misinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to our nation’s health,” Murthy said during remarks on Thursday at the White House. “We must confront misinformation as a nation. Lives are depending on it.”

Given the role the internet plays in spreading health misinformation, Murthy said technology companies and social media platforms must make meaningful changes to their products and software to reduce the spread of false information, while increasing access to authoritative, fact-based sources.

Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, on July 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Too often, he said, the platforms are built in ways that encourage, not counter, the spread of misinformation.

“We are asking them to step up,” Murthy said. “We can’t wait longer for them to take aggressive action.”

Facebook spokesperson Dani Lever responded to Biden: “We will not be distracted by accusations which aren’t supported by the facts. The fact is that more than 2 billion people have viewed authoritative information about COVID-19 and vaccines on Facebook, which is more than any other place on the internet. More than 3.3 million Americans have also used our vaccine finder tool to find out where and how to get a vaccine. The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”

Twitter posted on its platform, “As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves around the world, we’ll continue to do our part to elevate authoritative health information.”

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