As Twitter’s advertising revenue has plummeted, CEO Elon Musk is trying to court advertisers and assure them that “ads will not appear next to anything remotely negative.” However, as Musk has continued to roll back Twitter’s policies and reinstate previously banned accounts, hate speech and misinformation have flourished on the platform.
In a new study, Media Matters compiled the top 1,000 tweets about COVID-19 each month from October 1, 2022, to March 31, 2023, and analyzed the 250 accounts that earned the most interactions on those tweets. We found that anti-vaccine accounts have made up at least 24% of the top accounts that tweet about COVID-19 and right-leaning accounts have made up at least 50% — meaning that anti-vaccine and/or right-wing accounts are significantly contributing to the discussion of COVID-19 on Twitter.
Last week at the POSSIBLE conference — which was attended by many major companies — Musk reportedly said that Twitter is “a trainwreck sometimes,” while also reiterating that users have freedom of speech, but not freedom of reach and promising that ads would “not appear next to anything remotely negative.”
Twitter’s ad revenue has plummeted since Musk took over the company, with advertisers reportedly concerned where he's taking the platform. Media Matters has found that Twitter has lost nearly 50% of its monthly ad revenue since Musk took over in October, and according to recent reporting from CNN, “More than half of Twitter’s top 1,000 advertisers in September were no longer spending on the platform in the first weeks of January.”
Musk has tried to chalk up this loss of ad revenue to “bad timing,” but advertisers have fled the platform over brand safety concerns as a result of Musk’s actions. Under Musk, Twitter is transforming into a chaotic and poorly moderated platform. Musk has reinstated dozens of accounts that were previously banned for hate speech and misinformation and has allowed users that paid for verification to push hate, while simultaneously removing protections for trans users and removing policies against COVID-19 misinformation. In turn, anti-LGBTQ hate speech has increased on the platform and now, Media Matters data reveals with Musk as CEO, anti-vaccine accounts are contributing significantly to discussion of COVID-19 on Twitter.
This data — along with previous Media Matters findings that as recently as February, advertisements for major companies have appeared alongside tweets of antisemites who have denied the Holocaust — contradicts Musk’s assurance that ads would not be shown next to “anything remotely negative.”
Media Matters found that nearly a quarter of top Twitter accounts tweeting about COVID-19 pushed anti-vaccine rhetoric
Media Matters found that between October 2022 and March 2023, at least 50% of the top 250 accounts that received the most engagement on tweets about COVID-19 were right-leaning accounts, while at least 24% of the accounts were either run by anti-vaccine figures or contained anti-vaccine rhetoric. Just under 9% of the accounts had any medical affiliation.
Tweets about COVID-19 from Dr. Eli David, a COVID-19 conspiracy theorist and anti-vaccine figure, earned the most combined interactions. Some of the other top 10 accounts that earned the most total interactions on COVID-19 tweets include well-known right-wing and anti-vaccine figures, such as Catturd, Robert Kennedy Jr., Dr. Simone Gold, Robert W. Malone, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY).
Media Matters also found that the COVID-19 tweets from the top 250 accounts earned nearly 70 million combined interactions (retweets and likes). Anti-vaccine accounts earned at least 25 million of those interactions, accounting for more than 37%. Right-wing accounts earned at least 36 of the 70 million interactions, accounting for nearly 53% of interactions.
The top accounts tweeting about COVID-19 pushed dangerous misinformation about the virus and its vaccine
Of the 10 accounts that earned the most total interactions on COVID-19 tweets, 9 belong to known anti-vaccine figures. Popular narratives from these accounts include attacking Dr. Anthony Fauci, pushing unproven and potentially harmful treatments for the virus, and undermining the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccine. Many of these tweets came from accounts belonging to known COVID-19 deniers and far-right figures, including:
- Dr. Eli David attacked and mocked Fauci, claiming he was “wrong on everything” and that he “has caused more harm to humanity than any other scientist in history.” David also undermined COVID-19 mitigation efforts, falsely claiming that “masks had zero efficacy in preventing Covid" and the vaccine is “5 times more dangerous than Covid itself."
- Alt-right troll and Holocaust denier Peter Imanuelsen managed to tweet himself to the number two spot of accounts tweeting about COVID-19. Some of his many claims included that the COVID-19 vaccine “hijacks your cells to produce a non-human toxic spike protein,” and he pushed the false narrative that the vaccine leads to an increased chance of a heart attack.
- Right-wing troll Catturd frequently tweeted baseless attacks against Fauci, such as claiming he “lied” about natural immunity or calling him “one of the most evil demons in world history.” (While natural immunity can provide some protection from COVID-19, the risk associated with contracting the virus is much higher than that of the vaccine.)
- James Cintolo, who claims in his Twitter bio to be a medical expert, has repeatedly spread misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine on Twitter, including a story about a woman who suffered from a severe case of coronavirus despite being vaccinated, largely because of a pre-existing condition. Cintolo has also repeatedly pushed the false anti-vaccine narrative that people have “died suddenly” from the COVID-19 vaccine, and he has spread out of context information to back those claims.
- Dr. Aseem Malhotra is a British cardiologist that used a January BBC News interview on cholesterol medication to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. On Twitter, Malhotra amplified a video of Fox host Tucker Carlson and falsely claimed that the COVID-19 vaccine causes miscarriages and stillbirths. He also baselessly claimed that long COVID, which is a medical condition in which there are long lasting health problems after COVID-19 infection, is “actually synonymous with vaccine injury.”
- Anti-vaccine figure Robert Kennedy Jr., who has recently announced a Democratic presidential bid but has earned endorsements from right-wing figures, fearmongered on Twitter about COVID-19 vaccines, attacked Fauci, and sent his followers to his anti-vaccine website. He also shared examples of supposed “injuries” people incurred after being vaccinated against COVID-19.
Using NewsWhip, Media Matters compiled the top 1,000 tweets that included the terms “COVID,” “COVID-19,” or “COVID19” for each month from October 1, 2022, through March 31, 2023. We reviewed data for these tweets, including total interactions (retweets and likes).
We aggregated accounts who posted the tweets and ranked the accounts by total interactions and then three researchers independently coded the top 250 accounts for three factors: (1) whether an account belonged to a known anti-vaccine figure or posted anti-vaccine content, (2) whether an account belonged to a known right-wing media outlet, personality, or politician or promoted right-wing media or talking points, and (3) whether an account belonged to someone with a medical affiliation. We reviewed each account individually and each account was given a final code if two of the three researchers independently awarded it the same code.