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De-platform Disinformation dozen

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I have been writing about antivaxxers for ten years now, warning of the public health threat they pose. Today, the threat is far greater than it was in the past, because we are now in the midst of a deadly pandemic, and vaccines are our only tool outside of it. Mere public education about the benefits of the vaccine does not work before the onslaught of misinformation from anti-vaxers. It’s time to take away their platforms.

A new report from the nonprofit Center for the Suppression of Digital Hate (CCDH) reveals that 65% of online vaccine misinformation can be traced to just twelve people. It gives hope that we can actually do something: removing a small number of accounts can save millions of lives. Social media platforms have the power to do that, and they could do it almost overnight.

(No, I’m not calling for censorship, and no, they have no right to amend their lies. I’ll get to that below.)

Some background: The modern anti-vaccine movement began in the late 1990s, focusing primarily on childhood vaccines, especially measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines, and using a (initially) bogus study published in Lancet intimidate people because of the non-existent link between vaccines and autism. That study was eventually withdrawn, and lead author Andrew Wakefield lost his medical license after his scam came to light.

But the damage has been done. The anti-vaxers and misinformation they spread on social media caused vaccination rates to drop in the U.S. and the UK, and in other countries, and diseases like measles, which we basically eliminated in the U.S., began to reappear. It is tragic that some people have died from completely preventative diseases. One thing we’ve learned from the past 20 years is that once anti-vaxers start spreading their misinformation, it’s incredibly difficult to correct lies.

Today, anti-vaxers focused their efforts on social media on attacking Covid-19 vaccines. (They actually started attacking vaccines before vaccines even existed, a kind of perversion of reality that would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.)

Covid-19 has already killed millions, and millions more may die before we bring it under control. The only realistic way to end a pandemic is vaccination. Fortunately, we now have more highly effective vaccines, as I have written several times over the past year. Unfortunately, much of the population is severely misled, and many people say they will never get vaccinated. A pandemic could last for years and harm all of us if these people continue to refuse vaccines.

The anti-vaccine movement is constantly spreading lies, rumors and misinformation in an effort to scare people away from vaccinations. I will not repeat lies here, because just telling them gives them more credibility than they deserve. But anti-vaxers and social media platforms spreading their messages must stop. As President Biden said last Friday, “they are killing people.”

One particularly unfortunate development in the United States is that the anti-vacancy position has become hyper-political. Although Trump sought credit for developing the vaccine, even though he and his family were vaccinated as soon as the vaccines became available, many Republican leaders and right-wing media outlets like Fox News took a stand against the vaccine, and told their millions of followers to refuse vaccination. Logically, it doesn’t make sense that vaccine rejection has become a political issue, but it is.

The good news is that we could actually stop anti-vaxers. The CCDH report on the Disinformation Dozen shows that these 12 people, who together have 59 million followers, are responsible for 73% of anti-vax content on Facebook and 65% of anti-vaccine messages on other major platforms, including Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. This in turn means that if social media platforms simply shut down their accounts (and other websites they control, such as the deceptive name Children’s Health Defense and the National Vaccine Information Center), we will see a dramatic reduction in false vaccine data, almost overnight .

So who are the Disinformation Ten? Here they are:

  1. Joseph Mercola
  2. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
  3. You and Charlene Bollinger
  4. Sherri Tenpenny
  5. Rizza Islam
  6. Rashid Buttar
  7. Erin Elizabeth
  8. Sayer Ji
  9. Kelly Brogan
  10. Christiane Northrup
  11. Ben Tapper
  12. Kevin Jenkins

About Mercoli and RFK Jr. I have written before, several times, but not about others. I intentionally do not provide links to their anti-vax accounts, which include Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and dedicated websites, as all links simply contribute to their impact. For example, Mercola enriched itself by selling dietary supplements with unproven and often false health claims, and pushing vaccine myths, as I wrote back in 2010. Perhaps, if people understood that, they wouldn’t be so quick to believe him.

It’s time to remove the platform with a dozen misinformation against the vaccine. In our current world, this can only happen if the companies themselves – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google – delete their accounts. These companies could be expected to do so already, based on their own policies, but as the CCDH report says:

“Despite repeated breaches of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter service contracts, nine Disinformation Dozens remain on all three platforms, while only three have been comprehensively removed from just one platform.”

This is not a question of freedom of speech or the First Amendment; from private companies it is not necessary to provide a platform for anyone. And I am not calling for the Disinformation dozen to be arrested or legally punished for spreading misinformation, even though they are harmful, even though they indirectly kill people with their actions. But private companies can run anyone from their platforms, whenever they want, and if those companies care about public health and the health of their own customers at all, they will delete all accounts associated with these 12 people.

Finally, let me become a little philosophical. It’s amazing that we’ve created a society where we seem powerless to stop the spread of lies and distortions that actually kill people. Our technology allows antivaxxers to reach millions of people and persuade those people to take actions that harm not only themselves but all of us, as they allow the virus to spread and mutate. It seems that our governments simply do not have the power to force Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google and Instagram to close these accounts, so instead we rely on the whims of the small number of people who run these companies.

Should governments step in here and force companies into action? I don’t know, but so far the companies themselves have not been able to take action on their own. Germany and France seem to be the best solution so far: by demanding vaccines to eat in restaurants and travel by plane and train, they have persuaded much of their population, including former people who are hesitant about vaccines, to get vaccinated. In contrast, the U.S. has 50 different policies for 50 states, including some policies that are directly directed against vaccines. There must be a better way.

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