Those of us who’ve countered the antivaccine movement for a long time (and I’ve been at this for nearly two decades) know that, not only is there nothing new under the sun when it comes to antivaccine tropes and tactics of spreading fear of vaccines, but that there are certain “super spreaders” of antivaccine disinformation out there. Back in 2005, when the antivaccine movement and antivaccine disinformation became a much bigger focus of my blogging and online discussions, the major purveyors of antivaccine disinformation included Andrew Wakefield (of course!), Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (whose conspiracy theory-laden article for Salon.com and Rolling Stone pushed countering antivaccine disinformation way up my list of blog priorities) the père et fils team of Mark and David Geier, Dr. Rashid Buttar, and J.B. Handley (and his group Generation Rescue), soon to be joined by David Kirby, Jenny McCarthy, and various groups, such as the antivaxxers at Age of Autism, SafeMinds, and others. (Wow, what a blast from the past!) Of course, at the time, there was no “social media” (at least not as we know it now), but rather blogs and websites; so the reach of these nodes of antivaccine disinformation was much more limited. Things have changed, though, as a new report demonstrates that the vast majority of antivaccine disinformation on social media comes from relatively few sources, namely the “Disinformation Dozen”:
Before its “disinformation dozen,” we’ve encountered the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) before. A couple of months ago, the CCDH published a report on an online conference held by antivaxxers, in which attendees learned which messages to promote to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about COVID-19 vaccines and, indeed, all vaccines. CCDH’s report on the Disinformation Dozen can be found here.
One can’t help but note that this phenomenon is very similar to another phenomenon. Specifically, when it came to disinformation about the 2020 election having been “stolen,” again, it was a relatively few sources that were responsible for the vast bulk of the disinformation being spread.
One also can’t help but notice a couple of prominent antivaxxers not listed in the Disinformation Dozen. First is Mike Adams, who, in addition to his quack empire, is rabidly antivaccine, to the point of blaming vaccines for mass death as part of a global depopulation agenda that he calls the “Oblivion Agenda.” The second is Del Bigtree, who with Andrew Wakefield produced that 2016 antivaccine ur-conspiracy film disguised as a documentary, VAXXED. I rather suspect that the reason these two aren’t in the Disinformation Dozen, knocking off two of the lower lying members, is because they had already been deplatformed on the social media platforms studied before the start date of the period examined by the CCDH, February 1 to March 16, 2021. The sole exception is that Del Bigtree is still on Twitter, which likely isn’t enough to get him into the Disinformation Dozen. Still, I bet it irks Bigtree and Adams not to be included in this list!
Notable absences from the Disinformation Dozen aside, Facebook, despite its promises to do better cleaning up antivaccine disinformation on its platform and to adjust its algorithms so that antivaccine disinformation doesn’t spread as easily, is still doing a pretty lousy job, given that the Disinformation Dozen still thrives there. Indeed, I can’t help but relate a little story about what happened to me. In brief, over the weekend, I found myself where so many science and vaccine advocates have found themselves before: In Facebook jail.
Basically, on Sunday morning I received a notification that I was banned from posting or commenting for 24 hours because Facebook had a post of mine from a week ago about a dubious treatment for COVID-19 called Healight. The post was shared on the Science-Based Medicine Facebook page, and, two days later, Facebook tagged it as “spreading COVID-19 misinformation,” even though it did nothing of the sort—quite the opposite, in fact:
Of course, my post about Healight was, as you might expect, a discussion of a clinical trial of a highly dubious treatment for COVID-19. Worse, the Facebook ban was based on two “violations” of FB community standards. It turns out that, back in July, I got tagged for “hate speech” because I wrote a sarcastic post that, let’s just say, denigrated the intelligence of Americans based on some anti-lockdown and antivaccine protests that were going on then. Facebook interpreted that as “hate speech.” I appealed, but FB didn’t reverse the decision. I note that a few FB friends of mine got tagged for “hate speech” for making jokes about Canadians. I kid you not.
Now here’s the kicker. Facebook actually did reverse its decision because one of the other moderators of the SBM FB page disagreed with the ruling. The post is there now:
Despite this reversal, this “second violation” still counts as a “violation”! Again, I kid you not. I now have two Facebook “violations of community standards” on my record, which makes me wonder how long I’ll be thrown in Facebook jail the next time (and a next time seems inevitable, given the messed up algorithm and AI that Facebook uses that can’t tell real hate speech from sarcasm and can’t distinguish debunking bad COVID-19 science from spreading misinformation about COVID-19). It’ll probably be a week if and when it happens again.I note that this isn’t the first time FB’s defective algorithms tagged a post of mine as “COVID-19 misinformation.” It happened last month, when Barry Karr tried to post a post by me to his Skeptical Inquirer Facebook page and it got rejected by Politifact for “sharing COVID-19 misinformation.” It was actually debunking COVID-19 misinformation. Again, Facebook ultimately reversed its decision and the post is back, but still…
As a result of these experiences, I’m seriously thinking of not posting anything about COVID-19 on Facebook any more, at least for a while, lest I once again run afoul of Facebook’s messed up algorithms. Meanwhile, antivaxxers, COVID-19 deniers/minimizers/antimaskers, and cranks and quacks of all stripes manage to keep using FB to spread their disinformation with seeming impunity. Meanwhile, the Disinformation Dozen continue to spread antivaccine and COVID-19 minimization and denial throughout Facebook.
But enough of a diversion to my experience. Let’s look at the report some more. These accounts are not as influential on Twitter, but still very influential:
My guess is that this is because Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube allow for the creation of pages that can amass thousands and thousands of subscribers, members, or Likes, making them perfect niduses for the Disinformation Dozen to use to seed their disinformation, there to be spread by the many members of their pages or people who’ve Liked the pages. Twitter, on the other hand, is more decentralized.
Now let’s look as some of the bad actors in the Disinformation Dozen.
The first thing that surprised me about the report is that Dr. Rashid Buttar is relevant again! Seriously, Dr. Buttar is a quack whose use of chelation therapy to treat autistic children and whose cancer quackery I was discussing 15 years ago, but of late I don’t recall his being a huge force in quackery any more, even as I realize that he never really went away. (Truly, the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a perfect opportunity for washed up quacks to get their grift on again.) So I went to that section of the report first: It didn’t really have a lot to say about him other than:
Rashid Buttar is an osteopath physician and conspiracy theorist known for videos posted to his YouTube channel.
In this Facebook post, Buttar claimed that Covid vaccines cause infertility.
In this video posted to Facebook, Buttar claims that COVID-19 tests have living microorganisms (discouraging people from getting government-approved tests).
I note that the post is gone, but the video remains:
I didn’t watch the entire video, but I can say that the introduction was nauseatingly overblown, with Dr. Buttar’s fake “certifications” being touted as evidence that he’s one of America’s 50 “top doctors,” and the rest of what I skimmed was basically the same sort of run-of-the-mill COVID-19 and antivaccine conspiracy theories that I’ve been debunking for over a year now. I was surprised that he was so popular. Indeed, I was rather surprised that Dr. Buttar even made the list of the Disinformation Dozen.
Moving on, regular readers are very familiar with RFK Jr., “Dr.” Joe Mercola, Ty & Charlene Bollinger (who are, like Dr. Buttar, cancer quacks, too), Sherri Tenpenny, Sayer Ji, Kelly Brogan (who, appropriately enough, is married to Ji), Christiane Northrup, and Erin Elizabeth (who, appropriately enough, is Mercola’s longtime girlfriend and originator of one of the most hilarious conspiracy theories of all, that alternative practitioners are being “murdered” secretly to stop them), my having written about them on a number of occasions.
I didn’t recognize Rizza Islam, who’s #5 on the list, but it didn’t take much of a guess to realize that he’s affiliated with the Nation of Islam, now a wholly owned subsidiary of the Church of Scientology, and I’ve written about the alliance between the Nation of Islam and antivaxxers like RFK Jr. and Del Bigtree, particularly through the Rev. Tony Muhammad. I’m surprised that Rizza Islam himself never came up before in my blogging, but maybe I just lumped him in with general Nation of Islam fear mongering and conspiracy theories about vaccines designed to stoke fear of vaccines among Blacks. I will admit to being amused by the way Rizza Islam attributes vaccines to Satan, though.
I will also admit to not being as familiar with Ben Tapper and Kevin Jenkins, who are apparently both up-and-comers in the antivaccine movement. Tapper is—surprise! surprise!—a chiropractor whom I’ve seen on Twitter from time to time, who, if his beard and hairstyle are any indication, looks as though he’d be right at home among the Proud Boys. Kevin Jenkins, on the other hand, is just an activist whose grift is propelling him into the top levels of antivaxxers. Apparently, Jenkins has been involved with America’s Frontline Doctors, the COVID misinformation outfit that gave us Stella “Demon Sperm” Immanuel and is co-founder of Freedom Airway & Freedom Travel Alliance, a pandemic grift that involves helping paid members travel around the world without those pesky masks, quarantines, or vaccines.
I’m definitely going to have to pay more attention to Rizza Islam, Ben Tapper, and Kevin Jenkins. The grant applications and general interference of my regular work with my blogging over the last couple of months has clearly kept me from being as up-to-date on the latest COVID-19 and antivaccine conspiracy theorists rising in the griftosphere.
It’s also amusing to see those in the Disinformation Dozen react to the CCDH’s report and list:
Poor Ji. He can’t help but use a really silly antivax trope, the “appeal to the package insert.” Also, why is Sayer Ji still on Twitter? That rather shows what CCDH is talking about, doesn’t it?
Finally, it appears to be a general principle in the algorithm social media era that, more than ever, relatively few grifters drive the vast majority of the harmful disinformation out there, be it about vaccines, elections, or other conspiracy theories. It is equally clear that the social media platforms, particularly Facebook, appear reluctant to act too harshly. For instance, I wonder why Facebook and Twitter have never deplatformed RFK Jr., and I can’t help but wonder if it’s the Kennedy name. Be that as it may, the CCDH report is a warning. Will Twitter, Facebook, and Google heed the warning? I’m not optimistic.