Despite Facebook’s repeated promises to clean up anti-vaccine and COVID-19 misinformation on its platforms, a search of Instagram Shopping — a Facebook product — revealed dozens of items for sale referencing dangerous anti-vaccine and COVID-19 conspiracy theories. In some cases, the platform is even processing transactions for bad actors.
Facebook and Instagram are hubs for dangerous anti-vaccine and other medical misinformation, and that has been evident since well before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But as the company expands its e-commerce ambitions and courts creators to utilize its platforms with new monetization features, money is already flowing into the pockets of bad actors.
The products Instagram is curating for its users include: a tote bag that declares “vaccines are poison”; countless T-shirts featuring syringes inside circle-backslash symbols and featuring words “my body my choice,” an adaptation of the pro-choice slogan; coasters that say “they are lying about vaccines”; and stickers that feature misleading claims about vaccine ingredients. The last two products seem to violate Instagram’s policies against vaccine misinformation.
Yet, despite Instagram’s stated policy, several of the products Media Matters identified appear to violate both. Instagram says it removes “false information” about the coronavirus and “claims that deny the existence of the disease or undermine the severity of COVID-19.” The platform’s list of banned claims include:
Banned claim: “Vaccines or their ingredients are deadly, toxic, poisonous, harmful, or dangerous”
Media Matters found several listings for products that imply vaccines are all of the above.
Banned claim: Misinformation “about the safety or serious side effects of COVID-19 vaccines”
One of the side effects mentioned in Instagram’s list is “shedding,” a likely reference to the conspiracy theory that vaccinated people “shed” harmful toxins that endanger the unvaccinated. We found a number of products emblazoned with the slogan “Don’t shed on me.”
While most of the accounts appear to be small businesses and individuals selling anti-vaccine merchandise, larger companies are profiting from anti-vaccine and coronavirus-related conspiracy theories as well. For instance, e-commerce giant Ali Express’s Instagram shop offers at least two T-shirts with anti-vaccine messages: one apparently referring to the conspiracy theory that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has outfitted the COVID-19 vaccines with microchips and the other appropriating the pro-choice slogan “my body my choice.” The company’s verified account has more than 7 million followers.
New features, same problems
Facebook, Instagram's parent company, has been transparent about its push to drive more “creators” — and, with them, commerce — to its platforms. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, recently announced that the company won’t take a cut from most of its new monetization tools until 2023 in an effort to attract creators.
As part of that push, Instagram has begun to roll out a number of tools that allow creators to sell merchandise and monetize their pages in other ways.
As Instagram head Adam Mosseri said in a recent on the popular radio program The Breakfast Club: “If we're going to be the de facto home for creators online, which is what we want to do, we want to be the best space for creators online, we have to make it so that they can make it a living.”
But as demonstrated by the catalog of anti-vaccine products currently available on Instagram, the company is woefully unprepared to deal with these features being abused by bad actors spreading dangerous medical misinformation.