As part of its ongoing effort to court social media influencers, Instagram has introduced new features that are effectively allowing users who regularly promote misinformation, including anti-vaccine propaganda, to profit from spreading it.
The latest example is the platform’s new “link sticker” feature, which allows users to include hyperlinks to external websites in Instagram Stories. In October 2021, the company touted link stickers as a tool for “businesses, creators and change-makers” to share resources and information that “can inspire their communities” as well as showcase “new product drops to customers.”
Notably, the company committed to removing access to link stickers from accounts that “repeatedly share things like hate speech and misinformation, or other content that violates our Community Guidelines.”
Yet a Media Matters review of the platform found that anti-vaccine advocates and right-wing provocateurs are using the link sticker feature in their Stories to monetize their misinformation, organize extremist events, and push their followers to more extreme content on platforms like Gettr, Clouthub, and Telegram.
It’s no secret Instagram has struggled to keep a lid on dangerous lies, hate speech, and other misinformation; that much has been demonstrated by news outlets and researchers again and again. The link sticker feature’s use by anti-vaccine extremists and other bad actors is just the latest example of how spreading misinformation is profitable for both Meta, which owns Instagram and Facebook, and its platforms’ worst propagandists.
Link stickers are enabling bad actors to monetize misinformation
Over the past few months, Media Matters has documented dozens of examples of users whose accounts have previously been deleted from Instagram using link stickers on back-up accounts to promote products and even anti-vaccine events.
Take, for instance, Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician and prominent anti-vaccine advocate who has been banned from Instagram several times for spreading lies about vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Tenpenny is a member of the so-called “Disinformation Dozen,” influencers the Center for Countering Digital Hate identified as the originators of an estimated 65% of vaccine misinformation spread on Facebook and Twitter between February 1 and March 16 of 2021.
Despite the ban, Tenpenny used the link sticker feature on a ban-evading account to aggressively promote a line of supplements to her followers ahead of the holidays.
Fellow Disinformation Dozen member Robert Kennedy Jr., who was supposedly banned from Instagram last February, has used link stickers in posts from the RFK Jr Podcast Instagram account to promote his bestselling anti-vaccine book on Amazon.
And it’s not just prominent anti-vaccine influencers using the platform to monetize misinformation. Pro-Trump businessman Mike Lindell and right-wing agitator Jack Posobiec teamed up to use the link sticker feature to promote MyPillow products ahead of Christmas. (Posobiec and Lindell have spent the better part of two years using social media to spread election misinformation.)
Former professional baseball player-turned-right-wing influencer Aubrey Huff, whose verified Instagram account was banned last fall, recently used a link sticker on a ban-evading account to sell anti-vaccine T-shirts. (His website features a bizarre array of sexist, transphobic, and generally offensive merchandise, which he also promotes on Instagram.)
Anti-vaccine influencers are using link stickers to promote virtual and in-person events
Not only are bad actors using link stickers to monetize their misinformation, but this new feature is also making it easier for them to organize and promote virtual and in-person events aimed at spreading conspiracy theories and vaccine misinformation.
In December, one well-known anti-vaccine influencer who has been banned from Instagram several times used the link sticker feature on a ban-evading account to promote an anti-vaccine event that featured a lengthy roster of prominent medical misinformers. (Media Matters has chosen not to identify some anti-vaccine influencers to avoid raising their public profiles. We have included names for other, more widely known influencers, including members of the so-called Disinformation Dozen.)
The five-day virtual event included a special panel composed of several members of the Disinformation Dozen. According to the event’s website, more than 115,000 people tuned into the virtual symposium.
Through the link sticker feature on Instagram stories, this ban-evading account’s 90,000 followers could click and register for the event with minimal effort.
Another prominent anti-vaccine influencer used the link sticker feature to promote a live event in San Diego last December, which featured talks by several Disinformation Dozen members, including Ben Tapper, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Kevin Jenkins, as well as other well-known anti-vaccine activists.
According to the event’s webpage, all proceeds from ticket sales — including those generated through Instagram’s link sticker feature — were donated to the California branch of Kennedy’s Children’s Health Defense, a nonprofit Kennedy founded more than a decade ago to distribute anti-vaccine propaganda. (Children's Health Defense's Instagram account has also used the link sticker to promote livestreams and market Kennedy's book.)
Influencers are funneling users off platform
With the new link sticker feature, Instagram has given prominent misinformers yet another tool to develop their online networks and radicalize their fans with more extreme content.
Take, for instance, the conspiracy-addled documentary Plandemic, which earned millions of views on Facebook and YouTube in the spring of 2020 before it was banned from most platforms for spreading COVID-19 misinformation. On Instagram, however, the hashtag “#plandemic” and an account promoting the film remain active. And in December, an Instagram account that frequently posts content containing medical misinformation used the link sticker to give its over 146,000 followers direct access to the full Plandemic series.
Another anti-vaccine account with nearly 32,000 followers used the link sticker to direct its followers to the website of the Front Line COVID-19 Critical Care Alliance, a fringe nonprofit which promotes unproven protocols to treat COVID-19. The organization specifically curates a list of providers willing to prescribe ivermectin as treatment for COVID-19 infection. (Ivermectin is an antiparasitic medication used to deworm horses, and there is no reliable evidence that it is an effective treatment for COVID-19.)
Several accounts have also used the feature to direct their Instagram followers to content on other mainstream media platforms, like YouTube or Apple Podcasts.
Others, such as Disinformation Dozen members Tenpenny and Joseph Mercola, are using the link sticker feature to send Instagram users to alternative platforms like Gettr, Telegram, and Clouthub that have looser content moderation policies. In fact, several accounts even acknowledged in their posts that users should follow them on these alternative platforms to access content that would not be permitted on Instagram.
This is not the first time Meta has been caught allowing bad actors to abuse its platforms. Last fall, Media Matters identified more than 75 paid ads on Facebook that directed users to alternative social media platforms that permit extremist content. Allowing misinformers to shepherd users off Meta’s platforms lets the company dodge responsibility for the spread of misinformation without actually doing any work to address the issue.
The new link sticker yet again highlights Meta’s blindness to how the features that its platforms celebrate are used to cause harm, including spreading dangerous anti-vaccine misinformation.