Scores of anti-vaccine Instagram accounts are using the well-documented link-in-bio loophole to amplify and monetize misinformation against vaccines.
Social media platforms have been hotbeds for anti-vaccine and other medical misinformation throughout the pandemic, facilitating the spread of vaccine hesitancy across the globe. Anti-vaccine accounts of varying sizes and influence have used Instagram to this end, abusing the platform’s features to spread and monetize misinformation. Meanwhile, Instagram’s parent company, Meta, boasts that it removed more than 25 million pieces of COVID-19 misinformation from its platforms and has proposed eliminating its COVID-19 misinformation policies.
Meta’s efforts have fallen short and often resemble a game of whack-a-mole. Anti-vaccine advocates — and other accounts pushing dangerous content — use webs of back-up accounts and other tactics to evade bans and continue spreading harmful content on the platforms, which respond to the accounts and posts ad hoc.
Link-in-bio services such as Linktree and Campsite have become ubiquitous on Instagram. They allow users to nest promotional links on a simple landing page to raise money, organize, and drive their followers toward external content — including prohibited content that could get them banned if they posted it directly on Instagram. These services are now a common method bad actors use to avoid detection online, spreading medical misinformation and drawing their followers into dangerous conspiracy theories.
How an anti-vaccine Instagram account abuses link-in-bio services like Campsite
Experts have warned that link-in-bio services are a convenient loophole for bad actors to share content that would otherwise violate Instagram’s community guidelines. As the Virality Project, a consortium of misinformation academics from various universities and organizations, noted in a report last summer:
By taking users outside of Instagram’s “walled garden," Linktree allows users to draw their audiences to content beyond the reach of Instagram’s community guidelines or moderation systems. Consequently, using Linktree (and linking to vaccine-hesitant content in Instagram bios) has become a popular content-moderation avoidance strategy for anti-vaccine communities.
Media Matters found at least 66 anti-vaccine Instagram accounts, with over 2.6 million combined followers, using link-in-bio services to sidestep Instagram's terms of service. Nearly 90% of those accounts are using their link-in-bio services to monetize their misinformation by soliciting donations and/or marketing products and services.
One particular Instagram account that was identified in our study illustrates how link-in-bio sites act as gateways to misinformation on Instagram. Throughout the pandemic, this Instagram account has posted dubious claims about COVID-19 vaccines, claiming they are ineffective and even implying they are responsible for the deaths of thousands of people. In order to avoid content moderation, the account uses vague language and obvious innuendo (such as referring to vaccines as “jabs” and to the unvaccinated as the “unjabbed”), and directs its more than 55,000 followers to the Campsite link in its bio, claiming the page contains “tons of resources.”
In fact, the Campsite page includes a link to a channel on Telegram — an alternative messaging platform that anti-vaccine advocates and other extremists use to push dangerous content and misinformation — that features conspiracy theories about vaccines and alleged vaccine side effects.
This account’s Campsite page also links to various other sites: an Amazon storefront (where it earns commissions on sales) which contains a compendium of anti-vaccine literature and “detoxing supplies” to remove vaccine ingredients — often referred to as “toxins” by anti-vaccine advocates — from the body; a personal website that offers “counseling” for $125 per hour; and an assortment of anti-vaccine propaganda groups including the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care (FLCCC) Alliance and Physicians for Informed Consent.
Unlike Meta, which at least nominally bans certain types of anti-vaccine misinformation, Campsite’s terms of service simply state that the company has “the right but not the obligation to monitor, edit, and remove all Content provided by users.”
Media Matters found at least 18 other Instagram accounts, with nearly 1 million combined followers, using Campsite to monetize their anti-vaccine propaganda, including the following:
- Anti-vaccine influencer Del Bigtree’s nonprofit Informed Consent Action Network directs its Instagram followers to a Campsite page that solicits donations — via fundraising tool Anedot — and provides an array of links to anti-vaccine propaganda. The Campsite page also links to archives of Bigtree’s show The Highwire, which was banned from Facebook and YouTube after Bigtree encouraged his audience to infect themselves with the coronavirus.
- National anti-vaccine organization Freedom Keepers, whose Instagram has more than 70,000 followers, uses its Campsite page to organize against vaccine-related legislation, promote its Facebook group and Telegram channel, and raise funds via Shopify and Amazon Smile. Media Matters also found several examples of local Freedom Keepers affiliates in California, Nevada, and Florida using Campsite and other link-in-bio services to similar ends.
- A chiropractor from Southern California who has organized several anti-vaccine events featuring Disinformation Dozen members such as Bigtree and Robert F. Kennedy — and been banned from Instagram several times for spreading COVID-19 misinformation — uses his Campsite page to solicit volunteers for Freedom Keepers and to promote his podcast, practice, and petitions aimed at defeating vaccine-related laws.
Nearly 40 accounts use Linktree to promote and profit from anti-vaccine misinformation
One of the biggest players in the emerging link-in-bio market is Linktree, which boasts more than 25 million subscribers and is reportedly valued at more than $1 billion. The company also has a history of platforming anti-vaccine activists and other conspiracy theorists.
Linktree’s terms of service forbid content that is “misleading or deceptive, intended or designed to misinform, or likely to misinform a reasonable person.” Its website also says, “We don’t have to monitor the accuracy, reliability or legality of your content, but we may choose to do so.” The company provides a form to report accounts that seem to violate their policies against harmful content.
However, Linktree seemingly fails to enforce these broad policies, as Media Matters found 38 anti-vaccine Instagram accounts, with more than 1 million followers, using Linktree services to spread ー and in many cases monetize — misinformation. Notably, 34 of the accounts monetize their anti-vaccine propaganda.
- An account called V is for Vaccine uses its Linktree page as a donation page and a pass-through to its website, where it also solicits donations via PayPal and Venmo and sells fliers, signs, and T-shirts that promote anti-vaccine narratives and target politicians who have championed pro-vaccine legislation.
- A dating app for anti-vaxxers called Unjected ー which claims in its bio that it has been deleted from Instagram on eight separate occasions, and has been deleted from Apple’s app store ー is using Linktree to promote the latest version of its service and link to the various articles that have been written about the company.
- A prolific anti-vaccine account with more than 66,000 followers uses its Linktree to sell an assortment of supplements and other products using discount codes. The account has promoted an assortment of unhinged anti-vaccine conspiracy theories, including falsely claiming that vaccinated people shed harmful chemicals on the unvaccinated and that COVID-19 vaccines lead to kidney failure, cancer, and death.
Link-in-bio services allow other extremist content to flourish on Instagram
Link-in-bio services’ failure to police their platforms is also allowing other types of unsavory content to flourish and avoid detection online using the so-called “lifeboat strategy” to jump from account to sinking account. As described by Input magazine:
Conspiratorially minded folks are well aware that their outlandish theories don’t sit well on mainstream social networks. Charitably, these theories are defined as “misleading content,” and those who post it are often banned or deplatformed, left to find smaller, fringe platforms, which throttles their reach. Linktree is therefore the “lifeboat,” transporting the most out-there personalities’ fandom from one sinking ship to another.
To that end, Media Matters also found an Instagram account promoting “Aryan aesthetics” that uses its link-in-bio page to promote back-up accounts in case it’s booted from Instagram, and to promote its Telegram, where it posts much more explicit neo-Nazi content.
It’s clear that containing misinformation and hate online is a cross-platform issue that will require a more holistic approach to content moderation, beyond haphazardly removing accounts. In order to uphold its policies, Instagram must identify and remove (or at least moderate) accounts with histories of shirking content moderation policies through the link-in-bio loophole.