Anti-Vaxxers Are Using Facebook to Spread Sovereign Citizen Conspiracies

Some anti-vaxxers have seen their accounts grow by 13,000% since the pandemic began.
People protest the Los Angeles Unified School District's COVID-19 vaccination mandate, Tuesday, Oct 12, 2021.(Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
People protest the Los Angeles Unified School District's COVID-19 vaccination mandate, Tuesday, Oct 12, 2021.(Hans Gutknecht/MediaNews Group/Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images)
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Facebook has given some of the best-known voices in the anti-vaccine community a huge platform to spread disinformation and conspiracy theories about COVID-19—allowing their accounts to grow by 13,000%.

And now these figures are leveraging their new-found popularity to spread Sovereign Citizen conspiracy theories and even run for public office.

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This is according to a new report by researchers at the Institute of Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a UK-based think tank focused on extremism, who tracked the accounts of members of the World Doctors Alliance (WDA), a group of current and former medical professionals and academics from seven countries.

While Facebook did remove the group’s main page, the accounts belonging to the most prominent members of the group have seen their follower numbers jump by 13,215% between January 2020 and July 2021. They now have a collective following of over 550,000.

To give a sense of the scale of this group’s reach, the videos posted by these Facebook pages have been viewed more than 21 million times.

“Many of the group’s 12 key members have been able to build large, international, online audiences since the beginning of the pandemic,” the report’s authors wrote. “Members of the Alliance have repeatedly spread information related to COVID-19 and vaccines in direct contradiction to government guidance and the understanding of COVID-19 by the broader scientific community.”

Part of the reason that this group has been able to avoid punishment from Facebook is because it is made up of people with real qualifications in the areas of medicine and science, giving them a veneer of credibility when they spread disinformation. 

Among the highest-profile members of the WDA are founding members Dolores Cahill, who holds a PhD in immunology and was recently fired from her job at University College Dublin, and Dr. Scott Jensen, a former Minnesota state senator.

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Cahill’s page has grown from just a dozen followers in January 2020 to over 130,000 today. In recent months Cahill has used her new-found prominence in the anti-vaxxer community to spread Sovereign Citizen conspiracies, and the people who helped “rescue” a 67-year-old COVID patient from hospital—who later died—claimed Cahill was advising them.

Jensen, meanwhile, is running for governor in Minnesota and is using his page to promote his campaign, which is focused on “medical freedom and law and order.” He opposes vaccine mandates and has recently promoted natural immunity against COVID-19.

Facebook/Scott Jensen

Facebook/Scott Jensen

The WDA is part of a broader World Freedom Alliance, which Cahill founded at the end of 2020 alongside German physician Dr. Heiko Schöning and Danish financial executive Mads Palsvig. The group has links to renowned U.S. anti-vaxxer Robert F. Kennedy Jr and the New

Earth Project, an initiative that aims to create a new kind of society by encouraging people to “reclaim their sovereign birthright.”

Despite Facebook’s repeated claims that it was doing more to crack down on the spread of COVID-19 disinformation, the speed at which these pages are reaching new users is actually increasing.

In total these pages have accumulated 5.77 million interactions since January 2020, but interaction rates have increased by 85% in the first six months of 2021 compared to the previous six months.

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“Facebook is failing to enforce its policies around COVID nd vaccine misinformation on a very basic level,” Aoife Gallagher, a senior researcher at ISD, told VICE News. “Its policies are very detailed and outline precise examples of content that Facebook says it prohibits and removes. Members of the World Doctors Alliance frequently spread this kind of content.” 

For example, a video featuring Cahill downplaying the threat from COVID-19 has amassed over 770,000 views and remains on the platform, despite appearing to violate a number of Facebook’s policies.

Another failure is that Facebook’s artificial intelligence system, which it uses to quickly identify multiple versions of the same post, is not working as envisioned.

“The AI technology used by Facebook is failing to track down false information, even when the content has been thoroughly fact-checked and uploaded natively to the platform with little editing,” Gallagher said.

While not all the content posted by member sof the WDA is conspiractorial or false, the researchers found that “that large proportions—often the majority—of the most engaged with content on Facebook mentioning the World Doctors Alliance or its members in English, Spanish, German and Arabic contained false, misleading or conspiratorial claims related to COVID-19 and vaccines.”

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And as usual with Facebook, the company’s ability to track disinformation in languages other than English is much weaker.

The researchers reviewed 50 of the most popular posts mentioning the World Doctors Alliance and found that just 13% of English-language posts containing false or misleading content carried a factcheck label.

But its success rate was even lower for posts in languages other than English, with 8% of German posts, 5% of Spanish posts, and just 2% of Arabic posts flagged as containing false information.

This is hardly surprising given the recent revelations from former Facebook employees Frances Haugen and Sophie Zhang, about how the company prioritizes Western markets such as the U.S., while failing to invest sufficient resources in non-English speaking countries.  

Possibly one of the most damning conclusions drawn by the researchers at ISD, however, is that ultimately the company doesn’t even fully understand the scale or complexity of the problem it is facing.

“It seems that Facebook does not have a proper understanding of how misinformation spreads on their platform and they are either unwilling, or unable, to take meaningful action,” Gallagher said.

Facebook didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on ISD’s findings—but it’s pretty busy right now coming up with a new name for the company.