Project Veritas’ James O’Keefe is using a “distribution by proxy” strategy to spread vaccine misinformation on Twitter despite being banned from the platform
The group has also been pushing its anti-vaccine videos on far-right media -- even at a recent conference for the QAnon conspiracy theory
Right-wing smear outlet Project Veritas is exploiting loopholes on Twitter to continue spreading anti-vaccine misinformation while evading multiple bans on the platform.
The conservative organization has increasingly relied on a “distribution by proxy” strategy, using bots, Telegram networks, and more to drive traffic and amplify its inaccurate videos on Twitter, as the group and its founder, James O’Keefe, have been permanently banned from the platform. Project Veritas also appears to be catering to a more far-right audience in order to push anti-vaccine content, with the group’s representatives appearing on conspiracy theory outlets Infowars and OAN, and even attending a QAnon conference.
O’Keefe and Project Veritas have a history of editing secretly recorded footage to remove context and target elections, media organizations, and even nonprofits assisting the unhoused. The group also actively recruits so-called “insiders,” who are usually employees at these target organizations, to act as “whistleblowers.” In addition to regularly spreading misinformation, these individuals usually walk away with hundreds of thousands of dollars from fundraisers set up by Project Veritas.
Now, the group is laundering those same tactics through a deceptive campaign to spread vaccine misinformation on social media and far-right news outlets.
Project Veritas’ latest videos push vaccine misinformation
The “distribution by proxy” strategy and efforts to cater a more far-right audience have aided Project Veritas in spreading its latest misinformation campaign against COVID-19 vaccines and promoting its corresponding crowdfunding efforts.
Since September 20, Project Veritas has released a series of videos seeking to undermine confidence in COVID-19 vaccines. So far, the group has released two videos with “insiders,” a hospital nurse and an employee at a Pfizer production plant, and four videos of secretly recorded conversations with employees from the Food and Drug Administration, Johnson & Johnson, and Pfizer. All of these videos have either been debunked or lacked any factual basis, instead featuring edited clips of the opinions of the secretly recorded employees.
Project Veritas has also promoted fundraisers for these supposed “insiders” using the Christian crowdfunding site GiveSendGo. (GiveSendGo is the second crowdfunding site Project Veritas has used to get its “insiders” money; they previously used the more mainstream GoFundMe until the site shut down a fundraiser for a person pushing backdated-ballot conspiracy theories about the 2020 election through Project Veritas.)
Based on donation data as of October 14 reviewed by Media Matters, the first fundraiser for an “insider,” an anti-vaccine nurse promoting the anti-parasite drug ivermectin as a COVID-19 treatment, raised over $450,000. The second, for a now-fired employee at a Pfizer production facility, raised over $300,000.
These new “insider” videos remain on YouTube with millions of views despite seemingly violating the platform's rules against vaccine misinformation. They have also spread widely on Twitter -- even though Project Veritas and O’Keefe have been banned from the platform -- using a “distribution by proxy” strategy.
How Project Veritas pushes misinformation on Twitter
The strategy begins with Project Veritas galvanizing followers on its email list, Facebook page, and Telegram channel to tweet about the latest video. Notably, Project Veritas actually provides a pre-written tweet for followers to share via the Click to Tweet service, functionally automating the group’s ability to spread misinformation on Twitter despite the bans. Using Click to Tweet, several thousand accounts then tweet this exact stock message promoting the Project Veritas video in question.
In addition to making it possible for users to repeat the exact same message with the click of a button, these stock messages from actual users are further amplified by a network of bots promoting Project Veritas videos. After the release of a video featuring an “insider” from Pfizer, for example, Bot Sentinel -- a nonpartisan effort dedicated to identifying and tracking inauthentic activity on Twitter -- identified 798 accounts associated with Project Veritas that responded to just the release of that video.
Between users sharing a predetermined message and a variety of inauthentic activity further amplifying it, Project Veritas is able to get enough momentum to promote videos into the Trending tab on Twitter
Project Veritas and O’Keefe have been making use of the “distribution by proxy” strategy ever since their own accounts were permanently banned from Twitter in early 2021. Before that, O’Keefe regularly used the platform to amplify his video projects, even managing to get related hashtags to trend on Twitter several times. Since the ban, however, the largest Project Veritas account still active on Twitter is that of chief of staff Eric Spracklen.
Although Project Veritas does not have the influence on the platform that it once did, misinformation campaigns launched by the group have still managed to get significant attention, even making its videos trend a few times. Perhaps more notably, the longer Project Veritas operates this “distribution by proxy” strategy, the more its abilities to do so are improved: The group’s anti-vaccine campaign, which lasted nearly a month between September 19 and October 17, averaged 7,270 Twitter mentions a day -- over 1,000 more than the average for Project Veritas mentions during the four-month period between April and August, after its major accounts were banned.
Based on social media data reviewed by Media Matters, however, this strategy is a stopgap measure and still does not replace the influence Project Veritas or O’Keefe had when operating dedicated accounts on Twitter. In the 134 days before the ban, Project Veritas had 4.3 million mentions and 12.3 billion impressions (Twitter's metric for how many times a tweet is seen on a timeline or search result) on the platform. In the 131 days after the ban, it received 805,000 mentions and 2.38 billion impressions.
While the ban on major Project Veritas accounts appears to have reduced its influence, it hasn’t impacted the group’s reach, or amount of users who could potentially see Project Veritas content. According to the social media data, in the 131 days immediately following the April 14 ban of O’Keefe’s Twitter account, as many as 330 million accounts could have seen posts associated with the group based on keyword searches. That number was exactly the same for the 134 days prior to the ban -- indicating that the group’s reach hasn’t been dampened by having fewer official accounts on the platform.
Project Veritas’ success in utilizing the “distribution by proxy” strategy to artificially amplify the spread of its anti-vaccine videos -- including getting some to trend -- shows that bans alone have been ineffective in curbing the reach of its misinformation.
As its ability to flaunt Twitter’s ban improves, Project Veritas also seems to be appealing to an audience farther to the right.
Pushing anti-vaccine misinformation on the far-right
In the past, O’Keefe has regularly appeared on Fox after releasing new videos, especially on Sean Hannity’s program. O’Keefe would also regularly appear on Hannity’s radio program. However, Project Veritas’ latest anti-vaccine campaign received little to no attention from Fox and instead flourished on far-right conspiracy theory outlets including OAN, Infowars, and Steve Bannon’s podcast.
In fact, O’Keefe made three appearances on OAN’s Real America with Dan Ball alone while the anti-vaccine videos were being released. During his September 21 interview, O’Keefe even bragged that his latest “whistleblower” video had “trended on Twitter even though I’m banned.”
In addition to this range of far-right outlets, Project Veritas has embraced followers of the QAnon conspiracy theory as a potentially friendly audience to spread vaccine misinformation.
O’Keefe, a Project Veritas employee, and both of their anti-vaccine “insiders” recently made appearances at “Patriot Double Down,” a Las Vegas conference organized by QAnon influencer John Saban, also known as QAnon John. During the conference, both “insiders” prominently displayed links to their pages on GiveSendGo. One also professed admiration for Stella Immanuel, a conspiracy theorist and member of the medical misinformation group America’s Frontline Doctors; earlier in that same conference Imamanuel had referenced a version of the QAnon adrenochrome conspiracy theory by claiming that human clones drink blood to survive.
Given the history of anti-vaccine misinformation promoted from these outlets and entities, Project Veritas’ seeming pivot to garner their attention is cause for concern -- even if their campaign against vaccines isn’t garnering the same attention of more popular right-wing outlets like Fox News. And Project Veritas’ ability to amplify this campaign despite bans from major social media platforms like Twitter shows the necessity of enforcing policies against the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation, not just individual bad actors.