Facebook's 'Disinformation Dozen' Are Flourishing Across Social Media

All except two of the 12 social media personalities dubbed the "disinformation dozen" are still active on at least one of the major platforms of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and boast a combined 6 million followers, Newsweek analysis has found.

The dozen were named by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) as those intentionally peddling the most viral false information about vaccines and COVID-19 online, in a study released in March 2021 and later cited by the Joe Biden administration.

The CCDH urged social media companies to shut down accounts linked to the 12 but, despite several being removed, a majority are still active.

As of July 25, accounts linked to the dozen still had a combined 520,000 followers on Instagram, 830,000 on Twitter and 4.7 million on Facebook.

But the content they share may also have changed. Two of the three most-popular of the dozen appear to have stepped away from posting about COVID and vaccines in recent months after being hit with suspensions or a ban on smaller accounts.

When contacted by Newsweek, Facebook said that since March 2020 it had banned more than 12 accounts linked to the dozen and had taken widespread action against disinformation, removing more than 18 million posts for violating its COVID and vaccine policies.

Asked whether Facebook had received any advertising revenue from pages linked to the dozen, the company said it had "banned ads that discourage people from getting vaccines" and that the company does not profit from misinformation or hate.

"Many of these pages and accounts are currently unable to advertise or monetize after repeatedly posting content that had been debunked by third party fact checkers," it said in a statement.

There are currently no active ads on Facebook accounts linked to the dozen, according to the company's ad library.

The Big Three

Joseph Mercola has by far the largest reach.

The osteopathic physician and alternative medicine advocate has more than 1.7 million followers on a verified Facebook account, with a further 1 million on a Spanish-language account. His Twitter account has about 296,000 followers and an Instagram account, which is also verified, has about 330,000.

A spokesperson for Mercola told Newsweek that he "flatly rejects any claims of disinformation and is a strong supporter of free speech," and claimed that the CCDH "report is not validated by anyone, or published with peer review."

Ty and Charlene Bollinger, controversial alternative medicine activists, were also named among the 12.

In early April, the couple's account was suspended by Facebook, which deleted archive posts that the company said breached its community standards. They were also then banned on Twitter and had their main Instagram page removed.

But the couple appear to have launched a new Instagram account (less than 20,000 followers) and the couple still has about 1.1 million followers on Facebook.

However, they do not appear to have posted about vaccines and COVID since their original Instagram ban, instead focusing on cancer and alternative medicine.

In a joint statement to Newsweek, Ty and Charlene Bollinger accused the White House of "pressuring social media companies to censor free speech."

"We are not dangerous because we are promoting misinformation; we are 'dangerous' because we are presenting facts that do not fit the mainstream narrative," they added.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is another big name in antivaxxer circles. He was banned from Instagram in February for "repeatedly sharing debunked claims about the coronavirus or vaccines."

Yet on Twitter and Facebook he still has a combined following of about half a million.

He has not posted about vaccinations or COVID-19 recently and told NPR in May that he stopped posting content on Facebook that violated the platform's service, bemoaning that its crackdown cost his organizations "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in donations.

He added: "I have to post, like, unicorns and kitty cat pictures on there [Facebook]. I don't want to give them an excuse."

What Is Being Done?

The CCDH report found the accounts were responsible for sharing 65 percent of all anti-vaccine messaging on social media, rising to 73 percent on Facebook. It also stated that 95 percent of COVID-19 disinformation spread by the personalities on the three major platforms were not taken down from March 2020 to March 2021.

A perceived lack of action by social media companies, led President Joe Biden to suggest on July 16 that they were "killing people"—comments he later rowed back.

Since the CCDH report was released, Facebook has banned accounts related to Rashid Buttar and the Bollingers, who are all anti-vaccine advocates. Rizza Islam, who was also cited in the report, had already been banned.

Facebook defended its actions in a statement to Newsweek on Friday.

"We permanently ban Pages, Groups, and accounts that repeatedly break our rules on COVID misinformation, and this includes more than a dozen Pages, Groups, and accounts from these individuals," a company spokesperson said.

Although Facebook has been placed at the center of criticism surrounding the 12 personalities, several of the personalities highlighted also remain active on Twitter.

One account linked to Erin Elizabeth has been posting negatively about the CCDH report in recent days.

Elizabeth, who claims to be "the most censored woman on the net," is banned from Facebook and Instagram but is active on Twitter, on which she has about 33,000 followers.

She has been posting negatively about the CCDH report and the White House in recent days and has repeatedly questioned the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

The White House, Twitter and Kennedy Jr. have been contacted for comment.

Facebook logo and Robert Kennedy Jr
A file photo of a Facebook logo on a phone (right) and Robert Kennedy Jr. (left) attending the Art For Water To Benefit Waterkeeper Alliance at Sotheby's in New York City on February 6, 2017. AFP via Getty Images and Getty Images/Oliver Douliery left) John Lamparski (right

Update 7/29/2021 6:45 a.m. ET: This article was updated with comment from Ty and Charlene Bollinger.