Over 60% of Anti-Vax Content on Twitter, Facebook Originates From 12 People, Study Shows

About two-thirds of anti-vaccine content shared on social media can be traced back to a dozen users, according to findings presented in a recently published report.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate, a nonprofit whose work focuses on misinformation and hate disseminated online, conducted the study to examine the origins of anti-vaccine sentiment that has gained momentum on social networking platforms during the coronavirus pandemic. Results pinpointed a group of 12 individuals, collectively referred to as "the disinformation dozen" in the CCDH's conclusory report, who are at the forefront of false information campaigns targeting COVID-19 vaccines on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The study found that members of the "disinformation dozen" are responsible for 65 percent of anti-vaccine content posted to Facebook and Twitter, based on a content sample that evaluated posts shared 812,000 times on those platforms between February 1 and March 16 of this year. The accounts belong to Ty and Charlene Bollinger, Kelly Brogan, Rashid Butter, Erin Elizabeth, Rizza Islam, Kevin Jenkins, Sayer Ji, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Joseph Marcela, Christiane Northrup, Ben Tapper and Sherri Tenpenny.

"This shows that while many people might spread anti-vaccine content on social media platforms, the content they share often comes from a much more limited range of sources," authors wrote in CCDH's report. They cited data from the Vaccine Confidence Project that shows exposure to online vaccine misinformation can reduce willingness to receive doses by 8.8 percent.

Kennedy's account was removed from Instagram for its repeated false claims about the coronavirus earlier this year, as were Brogan's, Islam's and Tenpenny's from Facebook. Ji's accounts were removed from Instagram and Twitter. Still, a majority of the "disinformation dozen"—nine of the 12, according to the new study—continue to hold active Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, despite previously violating rules against untrue or misleading content related to the coronavirus.

The CCDH described this as "an extension of platforms' failure to act on vaccine misinformation" and suggested that 95 percent of the coronavirus and vaccine misinformation reported to the three platforms remains unmanaged.

Twitter will not take action in every case where coronavirus misinformation is shared on its platform, a spokesperson told Newsweek on Thursday. The spokesperson noted that posts must "advance a claim of fact, expressed in definitive terms"; "be demonstrably false or misleading, based on widely available, authoritative sources"; and "be likely to impact public safety or cause serious harm" in order to qualify for an alert label or removal altogether.

Twitter has removed more than 22,400 tweets and challenged 11.7 million accounts globally since implementing regulations last year against misleading information about the coronavirus, the spokesperson added.

A Facebook spokesperson disputed the CCDH study's conclusions. The spokesperson said that the methods used by the CCDH to collect content for evaluation were unclear and that the posts examined did not necessarily represent the landscape of misinformation and disinformation about the coronavirus online, nor its primary sources.

Leading anti-vaccine campaigners identified in the CCDH's report are popular social media users, each with large online followings. Some have seen their follower counts increase significantly over the past two months, as the U.S. accelerated its vaccine rollout nationwide following President Joe Biden's inauguration.

Coronavirus, Vaccines
A man holds a sign to encourage people to receive a COVID-19 vaccination on March 25 in Washington, D.C. Results of a new study indicate that 65 percent of anti-COVID-vaccine content online can be traced back to 12 social media users. Alex Wong/Getty Images

Up to 130 million COVID-19 immunization doses had been administered to eligible people across the country as of Wednesday morning, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last updated its vaccine tracker. However, as the nation looks to continue expanding eligibility criteria in an effort to vaccinate a majority of the population, concerns about public hesitance over receiving shots has grown.

Results of a survey conducted in February indicated at least 76 million Americans do not intend to get a COVID-19 shot, pointing to a reluctance that could jeopardize the country's pursuit of herd immunity. Numerous public health officials, including Biden's top medical adviser, infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, have stressed that the vaccines approved for emergency use are safe and effective.