Following Media Matters’ reporting, YouTube terminated the account for anti-vaccine figure Del Bigtree’s online show The HighWire, where he had repeatedly encouraged viewers to intentionally contract COVID-19 and pushed other dangerous medical misinformation. In a statement to Media Matters, a spokesperson for YouTube confirmed his account was pulled for violating the platform's policies. Bigtree’s show is also broadcast on Facebook, where it remains available for streaming.
Bigtree, who has no medical credentials, is a leading figure in the anti-vaccination movement through his anti-vaccine nonprofit organization Informed Consent Action Network and as the host of The HighWire. A 2019 profile of Bigtree in the online parenting magazine Fatherly labeled him “dangerous” and said he “may be the most connected node in the anti-vaccine activist network.”
During a July 29 HighWire special report in which Bigtree interviewed anti-vaccine figure Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Bigtree alluded to the fact that his broadcast could be soon removed from social media platforms, telling viewers to sign up for his mailing list. Shortly thereafter, Bigtree’s account was terminated “for a violation of YouTube’s Terms of Service.”
In a July 29 video posted to Facebook, Bigtree said that his YouTube account had been “unceremoniously removed,” but he argued that “this is a moment for celebration” because you know you are winning “when the other team has no choice but to start cheating.” Bigtree went on to warn that the medical establishment could “be accused of crimes against humanity” and claimed that “even though they threatened us, we will never stop bringing the truth.”
Bigtree’s YouTube channel for The HighWire, which was created in 2017, had grown from around 60,000 subscribers at the beginning of 2020 to more than 210,000 subscribers, according to social media analytics website Social Blade. The channel had more than 15 million views, and Social Blade indicates view counts had spiked in recent months.
Bigtree broadcast live from YouTube and Facebook and cross-posted the same clips and full shows for playback on each platform. The HighWire currently has more than 328,000 followers on Facebook. The HighWire also maintains an account on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, with 163,000 followers.
On July 23, Media Matters published a report about the dangerous medical misinformation Bigtree was broadcasting on YouTube and Facebook. Bigtree had:
- Falsely characterized COVID-19 as a common cold and labeled it “one of the most mild illnesses there is.”
- Repeatedly falsely claimed that wearing a mask poses a serious health hazard.
- Repeatedly suggested that people intentionally expose themselves to the coronavirus in order to build herd immunity.
- Hosted guests who advised viewers who think they have the coronavirus to take vitamin C until they have diarrhea and then to take more vitamin C.
- Declared on March 27 that the coronavirus outbreak is over and encouraged people to go outside to celebrate (around 150,000 Americans have died of the disease since that date)
- And made numerous unfounded attacks to warn people off a forthcoming coronavirus vaccine.
Following that report, Facebook removed three of the videos highlighted by Media Matters, but left other videos pushing dangerous medical misinformation available. YouTube took no public action.
Then, on July 27, Media Matters reported on an emerging narrative on The HighWire in which Bigtree encouraged viewers to intentionally contract COVID-19 as part of a harebrained scheme to develop herd immunity without the use of a vaccine. According to medical authorities, developing herd immunity through natural infection could cause millions of unnecessary deaths.
Anti-vaccine figures pose a special danger to attempts to get the novel coronavirus outbreak under control in the United States. As scientists across the world attempt to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, medical experts, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, have warned that widespread rejection of a coronavirus vaccine could greatly harm efforts to achieve herd immunity in the U.S. According to a recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, anti-vaccine figures have a combined following of 58 million people on Facebook. It is imperative that social media platforms act responsibly and take action against dangerous medical misinformation that could damage efforts to end the novel coronavirus pandemic.