Vaccination proponents and misinformation researchers had been waiting for years for Facebook to take action against the biggest and most influential anti-vaccination pages.
So it was with some trepidation that they welcomed the news that the social network last week had banned some of the most popular and prolific anti-vaccination accounts — pages that had also pushed Covid-19 vaccination misinformation to millions of people.
Their impact, however, lives on. While researchers of extremism and public health advocates see the removal of the largest anti-vaccination accounts as mostly positive, new research shows the bigger threat to public trust in a Covid-19 vaccine comes from smaller, better-connected Facebook groups that gravitated to anti-vaccination messaging in recent months.
“What we’re seeing play out with Covid is what was already in the system," Neil Johnson, a physicist at George Washington University who studies online extremism, said. "It was primed for that at the end of 2019.”
With many Covid-19 vaccines in the works, health officials have warned that public adoption will be crucial to ensure that enough of the population is immunized to stop the spread of the virus. Experts say there isn't an exact threshold for the percentage of people that need to get vaccinated to stop the virus' spread, but it is expected to be at least 60 percent of the population.
But public sentiment about the vaccines is mixed. Only 42 percent of Americans said “yes” to whether they’d get a Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available, according to a YouGov poll released in August. A poll from the Pew Research Center published in September found a significant decline from May to September in people who said they would get the vaccine if it were immediately available.
Johnson and a team of researchers published a paper in Nature in May that suggested the anti-vaccination movement bore a big responsibility for such hesitancy. It showed that although membership in online anti-vaccination groups was smaller than in pro-vaccination groups, there were more of them, their messages were more diverse, emotive and often persuading, and they were better at spreading those messages outside their groups, meaning they were able to reach more people.
Research from a forthcoming paper from Johnson and his team, currently in review for publication, shows members of communities previously considered unrelated or “undecided” on vaccines — groups for pet lovers, parent school groups, yoga fans and foodies, for instance — are increasingly connecting with the anti-vaccination movement.
“It’s like a tumor growth,” Johnson said.
While the anti-vaccination activists’ favored platform, Facebook, has taken a number of steps recently to limit the reach of anti-vaccine content, the movement has thrived during the pandemic — a success largely due to a pivot toward Covid-19 misinformation and a communication strategy that’s allowed the anti-vaccination message to circumvent platforms’ policy enforcement and reach users outside its network.
Facebook spokesperson Andrea Vallone said in an emailed statement that the company has worked to connect people with accurate information about vaccines and banned misleading ads.
"We also continue to remove misinformation about COVID-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm and direct people to our COVID information Center, which is available in 189 countries," she said.
A report by the London-based nonprofit organization Center for Countering Digital Hate found that the anti-vaccination movement gained about 8 million followers since 2019. Conspiracy theories about a coming Covid-19 vaccine have flooded social media, particularly on Instagram and Facebook, according to a new report from First Draft, a global nonprofit organization that researches online misinformation.
Such conspiracy theories (which purported the vaccine to be a clever cover for various forms of population control by a government “deep state,” private philanthropists or even Satan) weren’t limited to anti-vaccine fringe groups, First Draft reported, but were resonating with outside networks. Disparate communities including Libertarian, New Age, QAnon and anti-government groups, as well as more mainstream communities, seem to be uniting around the opposition to a coming Covid-19 vaccine.
The biggest pages banned by Facebook had already been preparing for a crackdown.
Facebook removed the page for the online anti-vaccination show The HighWire this month for violating policies on "misinformation that could cause physical harm," the company said. YouTube had removed the show’s channel in July after reports that host Del Bigtree was downplaying the severity of the coronavirus pandemic on his show and suggesting viewers intentionally expose themselves to Covid-19.
According to a post on the Facebook page for Bigtree’s nonprofit organization, Informed Consent Action Network, The HighWire had published more than 500 videos that attracted more than 30 million views. The page had 360,500 followers when it was deleted
A HighWire account remains active on Facebook-owned Instagram, where it has 199,000 followers. Bigtree did not return a request for comment.
But it wasn’t vaccine misinformation that got social media’s most popular and prolific anti-vaccination activist banned from Facebook this month. In the end, after years of building an audience on Facebook, Larry Cook, a California social media marketer, and his 200,000-member private group, Stop Mandatory Vaccination, were removed for violating the platform’s policies against promoting the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Cook, who did not respond to a request for comment, had been warning his fans of a coming ban and promoting his accounts on 11 other alternative platforms for months.
Cook’s and Bigtree’s pages and groups had continued to grow on Facebook despite a move in March 2019 to diminish the reach of anti-vaccine content during a measles outbreak and subsequent measures during the pandemic to downrank health misinformation in reaction to the World Health Organization’s warnings against “conspiracy theorists that push misinformation and undermine the outbreak response.”
Researchers have observed that livestreaming features provided a way for anti-vaccine activists to continue to reach their audience. Covid-19 in particular also led to significant followings for prominent anti-vaccine figures, said Renee DiResta, who studies disinformation as the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory.
“The anti-vaccine movement recognized that [Covid-19] was an opportunity to create content, so when people were searching for it, they would find anti-vaccine content,” she said. “They saw this as an opportunity not only to erode confidence in the Covid vaccine, but also to make people hesitant about routine childhood immunizations, as well.”
But efforts to move beyond Facebook have had limited success.
Their audience “may not know where to go and how to navigate to those platforms,” said Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, who studies the anti-vaccine movement.
Despite the promotion, only a handful of users have followed Cook and Bigtree to those new platforms.
“Too many people are deeply invested into Facebook, which has the distinct advantage because that is the platform people are on, it is easy to navigate, and it is how users stay connected to friends and families," Koltai said.
And users need not switch platforms to maintain the link to the greater anti-vaccination movement. An unknowable number of private groups remain, spaces that have been hubs for misinformation regarding Covid-19 and vaccines. These include the 224,000-member Vaccination Re-education Discussion Forum, a private anti-vaccination group exclusively focused on Covid-19 vaccines.
“It's like an insurgency,” Johnson said. “And the hard thing about battling an insurgency is we never quite knew where they were. There was almost like an invisible network behind them. Often, the groups that were most prominent, the ones coming to your attention because they were the biggest, didn't necessarily mean that they were the important ones in the network."
His new research shows the anti-vaccination movement has effectively used the pandemic to reach more than 100 million susceptible Facebook users, and seems to be winning the battle for hearts and minds.
As such, banning accounts with large followings is unlikely to have much real impact on the larger anti-vaccination movement.
"The anti-vaccination network is all about passing on narratives, passing on stories, supporting each other, just like an insurgency," Johnson said. "And just like an insurgency, it is embedded with the mainstream civilian population as it were. And that is their strength.”