The Anti-Vaxx Industry

How Big Tech powers and profits from anti-vaccine misinformation

Our latest report exposes how social media companies have helped sophisticated and rapidly growing anti-vaxx networks gain 58 million followers. Despite promises to keep users safe, we show how Big Tech itself makes up to $1 billion a year in advertising and other revenues from this industry, which threatens the effectiveness of a future Coronavirus vaccine.

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The campaign against vaccines is sometimes called a “movement”, but with the help of tech giants it has become a billion dollar industry, in which ideologues, hucksters and tech giants benefit from each other.

That is the central finding of the new report from my organisation, the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

So how does it all work? Take Californian huckster and conspiracy theorist, David ‘Avocado’ Wolfe. Wolfe is not a medical doctor, but Facebook broadcasts his health advice to more than 12 million followers, who go on to broadcast that to millions more.

He posts this free advice for a simple reason: he wants to sell his range of paid-for wellness seminars and nutritional supplements. Wolfe is also an anti-vaccine campaigner or “anti-vaxxer”.

This might sound like it doesn’t fit with his alternative health business, but in fact it’s an integral part of it. Trashing mainstream medicine is part of the sales pitch. Facebook knowingly acts as his shop front, serving ads to his slavish adherents, many of whom will put us all at risk by refusing to take a coronavirus vaccine.

For anti-vaxx entrepreneurs like Wolfe, the Covid pandemic has been a business opportunity. Alongside posts attacking a potential Covid vaccine, Wolfe encourages his followers to buy his brand of colloidal silver, calling it “my number one recommendation under the current crisis.” Facebook has even let Wolfe promote the product in paid adverts.

But Wolfe is just one part of a much larger anti-vaxx industry. Our new report reveals how this industry has an online following of 58 million that is worth up to $1 billion in annual revenue to tech giants.

Worryingly, this industry has gained another eight million followers during the Covid pandemic. It shows that the battle over a future Covid vaccine is already being fought – and those of us on the side of science are losing.

Polling commissioned from YouGov for our report shows that only 69 per cent of the UK citizens polled plan to get a Covid vaccine. This is far too low to reach the 82 per cent population immunity that scientists say we need in order to safely manage a disease as contagious as Covid.

Just as significantly, this polling shows that social media use and vaccine refusal are linked. Amongst those who use social media more than traditional media to access news and updates about Covid, 63 per cent in the UK say they will get a vaccine, compared to 72 percent for those who rely more on traditional media.

This anti-vaxx infodemic is a result of decisions made by big tech. After a series of measles outbreaks in the West last year, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter all decided against the removal of anti-vaxx content and accounts. Instead anti-vaxx content would be hidden or labelled.

Our report shows that this decision has been disastrous, allowing the anti-vaxx industry to reach 41 million followers right from the start of the Covid pandemic. Just three anti-vaxx accounts in our sample of 409 had been removed by Facebook since last March.

Social platforms chose not to alienate an anti-vaxx user base that we estimate is worth up to $1 billion a year to them. Some platforms have even broken their own promises by profiting directly from anti-vaxx content.

In one mind-boggling case, we found that an advert from the pro-vaccine Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was being displayed on anti-vaxx content on YouTube, while Facebook’s Ads Library reveals that it has accepted money for anti-vaxx adverts.

All of this powers a vast anti-vaxx ecosystem. It includes anti-vaxx campaigns funded by a tiny number of millionaires that have been pumping out misinformation on every social media platform for over a decade in some cases.

It includes an array of alternative health hucksters and professional conspiracists keen to cash in on people’s real worries about Covid. All of these actors exploit the spaces provided by Facebook groups in order to turn vaccine sceptics into die-hard anti-vaxxers.

It’s now time to bring the anti-vaxx industry to heel before it’s too late. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter have failed to enforce their own policies on Covid and health misinformation.

An earlier report by the center, Will To Act, showed that when a team of youth volunteers organised by us and Restless Development actively reported coronavirus misinformation that breached their terms of service to social media companies, less than 10 per cent was taken down.

It was only under the glare of the PR generated by our report that they started taking concrete action.

We cannot ignore the fact that social media companies have failed to clamp down on anti-vaccine misinformation for so long. Their failure to do so has led to the worsening of the situation, such that this is now clearly a national, if not global, security issue amidst the pandemic.

Their failure to act to date provides the strongest possible evidence that the Online Harms Bill the Government has been drafting needs to include a statutory duty of care for social media companies so that they take a proactive stance to public protection on their publishing platforms, backed up by the possibility of fines, boycotts and even criminal charges.

Imran Ahmed CEO, Center for Countering Digital Hate

This Op-ed first appeared in The Telegraph