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July 10, 2020, 9:24 a.m.
Audience & Social

One group that’s really benefitted from Covid-19: Anti-vaxxers

Plus: How a fake news headline came to be (there are no “Obama-Soros Antifa Supersoldiers”) and trends in Covid-19 misinformation.

The growing stream of reporting on and data about fake news, misinformation, partisan content, and news literacy is hard to keep up with. This weekly roundup offers the highlights of what you might have missed.

“How Big Tech powers and profits from vaccine misinformation.” That’s the title of a report released this week by the U.K.-based nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate. Among the findings:

Covid-19 has been a growth opportunity for anti-vaccination sites. “Our investigation of 409 English language anti-vaxx social media accounts shows that they now have 58 million followers. For 147 of the largest accounts, with 49 million followers, we have calculated that they have gained at least 7.8 million followers since 2019, an increase of 19%.”

The movement is strongest on Facebook… “In our sample, anti-vaxx Facebook groups and pages command over 31 million followers, well over half of the combined following of all the accounts we studied. Anti-vaxx accounts have nearly 17 million subscribers on YouTube and 7 million on Instagram, but appear to be weakest on Twitter where they have 2 million followers.” The authors theorize that this could be because people are reluctant to publicly admit anti-vaccination views: “89 percent of the Facebook pages in our sample have more followers than likes, with the key difference that likes are visible to other users. In contrast, just 44 percent of the top 50 Facebook pages have more followers than likes.”

…but Instagram is catching up:

Instagram accounts for more than half of anti-vaxx campaigners’ follower growth during the Covid pandemic, attracting an extra 571,000 people. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. led this trend by leveraging his reputation as an environmental activist in conjunction with graphic memes that work well in Instagram’s format to promote conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and 5G mobile phone signals, adding over 336,000 people to his following in a matter of months.

Anti-vaxx filmmaker Del Bigtree and Nation of Islam influencer Rizza Islam have also mastered Instagram as a medium, adding another 187,000 followers between them.

This rapid growth contrasts with more sluggish growth on Facebook where new policies on anti-vaccine misinformation appear to have had a limiting effect on many groups and pages, suggesting that Facebook would be wise to ensure that similar techniques are being applied to its management of Instagram, which it wholly owns.

Social media use and vaccine refusal are linked:

New polling of 2,861 US and UK adults commissioned from YouGov for this report indicates that vaccine refusal and use of social media are linked, and that too few people currently plan to get a Coronavirus vaccine.

Amongst those who use social media more than traditional media to access news and updates about Covid, 63 percent in the UK and 56 percent in the US say they will definitely or probably get a vaccine. This compares to 72 percent in the UK and 66 percent in the US amongst those who get more information from traditional rather than social media.

Other studies back this up. Warren Cornwall wrote last month in Science:

Recent polls have found as few as 50% of people in the United States are committed to receiving a vaccine, with another quarter wavering. Some of the communities most at risk from the virus are also the most leery: Among Black people, who account for nearly one-quarter of U.S. COVID-19 deaths, 40% said they wouldn’t get a vaccine in a mid-May poll by the Associated Press and the University of Chicago. In France, 26% said they wouldn’t get a coronavirus vaccine.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now working on a plan to boost “vaccine confidence” as part of the federal effort to develop a vaccine, director Robert Redfield told a Senate committee this week. Advocates urge campaigns that include personal messages and storytelling. “We better use every minute we have between now and when that vaccine or vaccines are ready, because it’s real fragile ground right now,” says Heidi Larson, an anthropologist and head of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

(Not helping anything, by the way: Muddled CDC messaging. Redfield seemed to suggest on Wednesday that the CDC would backtrack on or loosen its return-to-school guidelines under pressure from Trump — only to insist on Thursday that the guidelines would not be changed.)

“Continuing narratives that coronavirus is not as dangerous as portrayed.” The Computational Propaganda Project at the Oxford Internet Institute is publishing “weekly briefings about the spread of coronavirus information across multiple social media platforms,” using data from Facebook and Instagram (via CrowdTangle), Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube, and comparing the reach of and engagement with junk news and state-backed news sites to the reach of and engagement with mainstream news sites. (Here’s the methodology.) For the week ending July 1, 2020, one key theme was “continuing narratives that coronavirus is not as dangerous as portrayed”:

…a particularly concerning article from The Daily Wire, with over 33,000 engagements, distorted CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield’s recent comments about the possible number of actual cases in the US being 10 times higher than currently known. Highlighted very early in the article is a multiplication of the currently known number of active cases from around 2.5 million to 25 million. On that basis, the article stated that the death rate could be as low as 0.5%, and cited an April study from Stanford that determined a death rate of between 0.1% to 0.2%. [Ed. note: There’s more on that Santa Clara preprint, which was not subject to peer review, here.] The article then claimed that the virus was not as fearsome as has been portrayed, neglecting to reference that deaths always lag behind case numbers. The same article further fueled distrust in public health experts by criticizing models that have overestimated death numbers.

“The trouble started when SmartNews picked up Wonkette’s mocking story…” Over at The Markup, Jeremy B. Merrill and Aaron Sankin examined exactly how it came to be that “some Oregonians, mostly older people, saw a Facebook ad pushing a headline about how a Republican politician ‘Wants Martial Law To Control The Obama-Soros Antifa Supersoldiers.'”

Photo of a vaccine on a tray with swabs and a band-aid by Self Magazine and the American Association of Pediatrics as part of the “Vaccines Save Lives” project, used under a Creative Commons license.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     July 10, 2020, 9:24 a.m.
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