The good news: More than a year into Instagram’s COVID-19 policy rollout and a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic, the platform has finally taken action against three of its most notorious spreaders of vaccine misinformation.
Over the weekend, the platform removed three of the so-called “Disinformation Dozen,” influencers identified in a report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate as the originators of an estimated 65% of vaccine misinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter alone.
The bad news? At least one of those banned accounts, osteopathic physician Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, as well as several other anti-vaccine “micro-influencers” Instagram had previously removed, have already successfully pivoted to alternate accounts on the platform. These ban-evasion or replacement accounts already boast follower counts in the tens of thousands.
None of these events are surprising. It’s almost a truism at this point: Facebook (Instagram’s parent company) commits to crack down on some variant of harmful content on its platform, and that effort either fails miserably, or it's too little, too late. Lather, rinse, repeat.
And though the platforms have removed millions of individual pieces of COVID-19 misinformation and some prominent anti-vaxxers no longer have accounts, it’s still nowhere close to enough. One report found that last April, 10 websites prolifically sharing health misinformation on Facebook earned nearly four times as many views on the platform as similar content from 10 leading purveyors of reliable health information — a group that included such institutions as the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Take, for instance, Sherri Tenpenny. Before her Instagram account was deleted over the weekend, it had more than 135,000 followers. Tenpenny, who rose to prominence when she began to claim that vaccines cause autism in children, has emerged as a favored source during the pandemic among right-wing, anti-vaccine, and COVID-skeptical social media users.
As doses of COVID-19 vaccines have become available in the U.S. in recent months, Tenpenny has claimed that the mass vaccination effort will lead to a wave of vaccine-related deaths and chronic illnesses -- including ALS and other neurological disorders. (That of course isn’t true.)
In one recent viral clip, Tenpenny falsely claimed that COVID-19 vaccines are “multiple times more deadly and dangerous than what this virus is.” The video earned more than 100,000 views on Instagram. (Her videos have also earned millions of views on alternative streaming platforms.)
Tenpenny made no effort to temper the boldness or inaccuracy of her claims in the weeks ahead of her ban. In an interview with Dr. Lee Merritt of America’s Frontline Doctors, a fringe medical group that endorses a wide range of medical conspiracy theories, Tenpenny called the COVID-19 vaccines “a well-designed killing machine” that causes any number of life-threatening conditions. In the same video, she and Merritt unironically compared medical professionals to the German doctors who were executed for experimenting on Jews during the Holocaust.
And when Tenpenny and her guests weren’t fantasizing about sending pro-vaccine doctors to the gallows, she used her Instagram to promote 5G conspiracies, compare slaves to “hired help,” and promote conspiracy theories about the Clintons. That was just in April.
By the time Instagram had deleted her account, the videos had earned tens of thousands of views. After the ban, Tenpenny was able to quickly redirect her followers to her new accounts on the platform. Within a day, Tenpenny had shepherded thousands of her Telegram followers to her alternate Instagram handle. As of publishing, that account has more than 53,000 followers.
Unsurprisingly, a quick search of Instagram also reveals that even if Tenpenny isn’t posting her vile videos to the platform, users can still readily find and watch clips of her making dangerous, outrageous claims. In fact, just last week, Instagram allowed a verified account to post a video of Tenpenny claiming that vaccines kill people. The post contains a warning label, but as of publishing, it is still live.
Tenpenny isn’t the only one to successfully avoid an Instagram ban. A month earlier, Instagram booted a slate of anti-vaccine influencers: Stanton Hom, Brad Campbell and Alec Zeck. Before long, all three of them were back on the platform using different handles -- albeit with diminished followings. Campbell, a chiropractor based in Illinois, was bold enough to announce his ban-evasion tactics on one of his alternate accounts.
While it’s encouraging to see Instagram finally take action against known bad actors, this game of whack-a-mole clearly isn’t working. Just as with Facebook’s recent takedown of a large anti-vaccine group, both platforms appear unwilling or unable to handle immediate (and predictable) ban-evasion behavior.