Update (3/29/21): Following the publication of this article, Instagram removed eight of the posts mentioned in the story for violating the platform’s Community Standards.
As countries across the world rush to vaccinate their citizens against the coronavirus, vaccine hesitancy remains one of the biggest hurdles to achieving herd immunity. One major factor fueling that hesitancy is medical misinformation spread via social media.
It’s no secret that Facebook and Instagram, which it owns, are hotbeds for dangerous anti-vaccine and other medical misinformation. That trend dates back before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One study found that health misinformation on Facebook received more than 3.8 billion views on the platform in the early days of the pandemic -- outpacing the traffic of more reliable sources like the World Health Organization or the Center for Disease Control.
On February 8, Facebook promised to expand its efforts to “remove false claims on Facebook and Instagram about COVID-19 and vaccines" as part of a broader effort to shepherd users toward more reliable information about the pandemic and how and where to get vaccinated.
But the returns on that policy are unclear. In a recent op-ed, the company’s head of health claimed more than 2 million pieces of “widely debunked content about COVID-19 and vaccines” have already been removed. (Meanwhile, a recent report noted that Facebook spiked a tool that had previously allowed it to detect medical misinformation because it impacted conservatives more than liberals.)
A targeted search of Instagram found that despite the platform’s stated policy to remove dangerous anti-vaccine content, posts containing false and misleading information about coronavirus vaccines still earn tens of thousands of views and likes. Media Matters also found that posts that remain up often misspelled terms like “covid” and “vaccine” and used emojis -- perhaps to avoid detection.
Instagram is hosting videos that feature dangerous conspiracy theories
In March 2020, Instagram committed to removing “false claims or conspiracy theories that have been flagged by leading global health organizations and local health authorities as having the potential to cause harm to people who believe them.”
But it appears that standard is too narrow. Last summer, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Instagram acted on only 10% of the posts researchers had flagged as containing coronavirus misinformation. Today, a quick search of Instagram reveals that conspiracy theory videos are still circulating on the platform. Some of these dangerous posts have been labeled as false or misleading but not removed.
- In early March, a video of osteopath and QAnon sympathizer Carrie Madej circulated on Instagram. In the clip, Madej claims that mRNA vaccines like the ones developed to prevent COVID-19 could trigger a deadly immune response called a “cytokine storm.” Independent fact-checkers have confirmed that no evidence exists to buttress Madej’s irresponsible claims. While Instagram has marked the video as false information and made it more difficult to find, it has still been viewed more than 100,000 times.
- Around the same time, a video featuring a different osteopath, Sherri Tenpenny, made the rounds. In the video, Tenpenny uses data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) to misleadingly conclude that “this injection is multiple times more deadly and dangerous than what this virus is.” As of publishing, the video has been reposted and viewed more than 100,000 times. Tenpenny’s Facebook page was recently deleted for violating Facebook’s terms of service, but her Instagram account remains intact.
- In early March, a veterinarian named Dr. Geert Vanden Bossche penned an open letter warning that mass vaccination against the coronavirus would trigger a chain reaction of coronavirus mutations down the line that would prove lethal. (The claim is misleading and far-fetched.) Since then, interviews with Bossche have gone viral on YouTube. Bossche’s explosive claims have also made their way to Instagram. On March 16, for instance, a verified Turkish account posted an explosive snippet from Bossche’s interview with the caption “In summary: Vaccination will almost destroy human immunity” (per Instagram’s translation from Turkish). As of publishing, the video had more than 44,000 views on Instagram and it does not feature a warning label or link to reliable coronavirus information.
Anti-vaccine “micro-influencers” are avoiding detection
In the past month, Instagram has removed some of the most influential anti-vaccine accounts from its platform. That includes pages of anti-vaccine entrepreneurs like Del Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy -- though Kennedy still has access to large audiences via his nonprofit Children’s Health Defense, which has hundreds of thousands of followers on both Facebook and Instagram.
In their wake, a new type of influencer has emerged: micro-influencers. Often helmed by chiropractors or osteopaths who use the title “Dr.” in front of their names, these accounts are spreading dangerous misinformation and avoiding detection on the platform. They’re even openly organizing an anti-vaccine rally in San Diego that will feature appearances from figures like Bigtree and “Plandemic” star Judy Mikovits.
- On March 15, a chiropractor named Brad Campbell published a video titled “DANGERS MNRA PART 3” in which he claimed some of his patients are experiencing potentially dangerous adverse side effects from vaccination. In the video, Campbell implies that “natural immunity” is better than “vaccinated” immunity, a declaration he’d made in a previous post that had been taken down by Instagram. But, he said, “I can seemingly talk about it in longform video like this because it doesn’t seem to get censored.”
- Another chiropractor and anti-vaccine advocate, Dr. Stanton Hom, has more than doubled his Instagram following since Facebook’s supposed crackdown. In one viral post, he summarized a set of misleading statistics from the government system that collects reports on adverse vaccine reactions, VAERS. (It should be noted that VAERS’s database is not vetted, so it’s impossible to draw a causal relationship between vaccination and any of the conditions Hom lists in his post. As the system’s website explains, “When evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established.”) Hom also likes to creatively spell “vaccine” and “COVID-19.” -- seemingly to throw content moderators off his trail.
- On March 11, a “holistic psychiatrist” who goes by StreetMD posted a video of a doctor who consults with vaccine manufacturers supposedly admitting in court to using aborted fetal tissue in vaccine research with the text “Women’s rights include a mother’s right to not inject pieces of other women’s abortions into our son/daughter in order to attend public school.” The claim, of course, is bogus. “Immortal” fetal cells harvested from elective abortions in the 1960s and ‘70s are used in the process of making some vaccines, but they’re used as a medium in which to reproduce virus, and no human tissue makes it into the vaccine. Other right-wing outlets have seized on this misleading narrative in recent months.
- Other posts feature common vaccine myths: that vaccines are “experimental products” developed by evil companies, that the vaccine’s side effects are worse than the disease itself (more than 542,000 have died from COVID-19 in the United States), and that vaccinations are dangerous.
If Facebook truly wants to be a leader in combating vaccine hesitancy, it should start with its own platforms. But if the early returns are any indication, the company is not fully committed to wrangling that beast.