Facebook Won’t Ban Its Biggest COVID Anti-Vaxxer Accounts

Despite big promises to remove anti-vaxxers, Facebook's disinformation superspreaders are still racking up tens of millions of impressions.
April 28, 2021, 12:33pm
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the Senate judiciary and commerce committees on Capitol Hill over social media data breach, in Washington, DC, USA, April 10, 2018. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before the Senate judiciary and commerce committees on Capitol Hill over social media data breach, in Washington, DC, USA, April 10, 2018. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)
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Unraveling viral disinformation and explaining where it came from, the harm it's causing, and what we should do about it.

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy and technology held the latest Big Tech hearing on Capitol Hill, this one focusing on algorithms.  

Like most Big Tech hearings, much of the questioning was off topic and highly partisan. But, in between Sen. John Kennedy berating witnesses for being unwilling to say if they would sign a bill they hadn’t read, and Sen. Marsha Blackburn criticizing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s personal grooming, someone asked a sensible question.

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“A recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate identified 12 specific content producers as the original source of an estimated 65% of coronavirus disinformation online,” Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, asking Facebook’s head of global policy management: “What’s your response?”

Monika Bickert, who has in the past been willing to admit Facebook’s failure to respond in a timely fashion to disinformation and hate speech on the platform, said the problem had been taken care of.

We’ve assessed that content and removed those accounts that were violating,” Bickert told Klobuchar. But that wasn’t the whole truth: what she failed to say was that most of the dozen names on the superspreader list were still active on Facebook and Instagram.

According to an update from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, published shortly after Bickert’s comment, 10 of the top 12 anti-vax leaders remain on Facebook, and nine of 12 remain on Instagram.

The so-called “Disinformation Dozen” were first brought to the attention of the Big Tech CEOs—Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and Google’s Sundar Pichai—during a congressional hearing on March 25.

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“Look at it today and get back to us tomorrow,” Rep. Mike Doyle told Zuckerberg, Dorsey, and Pichai when they told the House Energy and Commerce Committee they would have to look into the details.

All three made strong statements indicating they would take decisive action against the disinformation super-spreaders. But so far those promises have not been fulfilled.

Twitter’s head of public policy Lauren Cuilbertson told Klobuchar during the hearing that it is “continuing to review this particular group of individuals against our policies.” According to CCDH data, 10 of the dozen figures continue to operate active Twitter accounts.

Since March 25, the group of 12 disinformation superspreaders have posted 105 pieces of disinformation, generating up to 29 million impressions, according to CCDH’s data. And those figures don’t reflect the reach these accounts have in private Facebook groups and messages.

“Big Tech promised to protect public health by taking enforcement action against known, repeat-offender vaccine disinformation superspreaders. Yet, so far, they have failed to finish the job,” Imran Ahmed, head of the CCDH said in an emailed statement.

“The CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram know exactly who is violating their terms of service. Their lies cost lives, and social media companies’ refusal to remove them has dire consequences. Big Tech must stop profiting from the spread of this disinformation.”

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A table showing some members of the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s “Disinformation Dozen” indicating what platforms they use to share COVID-19 disinformation (CCDH).

Among the dozen are Robert F Kennedy Jr, a nephew of the former US president who leads an anti-vaccine group. His Instagram account has been removed, but he remains active on Facebook where he has 320,000 followers.

Also on the list is Dr. Joseph Mercola, a major funder of the anti-vax movement who has made millions from selling alternative health supplements online. His partner Erin Elizabeth, who runs a prominent alternative health site called “Health Nut News” is also on the list, as are anti-vax entrepreneurs Ty and Charlene Bollinger, who run a network of accounts that market books and DVDs about vaccines, cancer and COVID-19.

Correction: This story has been updated to include additional context about Bickert's remarks to Congress.