Neil Johnson, a George Washington University physicist who studies online extremism, told Zadrozny that his most recent work shows people organizing in spaces mostly unrelated to discussions of the pandemic—yoga fans, foodies, pet lovers, parent school groups—or considered “neutral” on the vaccine are increasingly being connected on social media to the conspiracy-theory-fueled vaccine “resistance” movement.
“It’s like a tumor growth,” Johnson said.
The conspiracy theories include such claims as the notion that 5G cell-phone towers are the real source of the disease; that Bill Gates leads a cabal of wealthy “globalists” who will inject vaccine recipients with a nefarious microchip simultaneously (a theory first spread by neo-Nazis); and that the vaccine is the spear point of a Satanic plot to control the world’s population. Unsurprisingly, there also appears to be a large overlap of anti-vaccine activists and QAnon conspiracy theorists.
As has been the case all along, Facebook appears to be the platform where the phenomenon most often occurs. Johnson says the anti-vaccination movement has reached more than 100 million susceptible Facebook users—and that, moreover, its methods are often more persuasive than scientifically informed observers might expect to find.
“It's like an insurgency,” Johnson said. “And the hard thing about battling an insurgency is we never quite knew where they were. There was almost like an invisible network behind them. Often, the groups that were most prominent, the ones coming to your attention because they were the biggest, didn't necessarily mean that they were the important ones in the network."
A previous study by Johnson and his research team, published in Nature last May, demonstrated that if members of the public were hesitant about taking the vaccines once they become available, it was primarily due to their exposure to the anti-vaccination theorists’ misinformation and completely fabricated claims. Worryingly, it also suggested that these views could come to be held by a majority of the public within a few years if permitted to spread uncontained.
The research showed that while pro-vaccination groups enjoyed larger membership, the online anti-vaccination groups outnumbered them and were often more effective: There was greater diversity in their messages, which also were emotive and persuasive. Moreover, the anti-vaccination groups were better at spreading those messages outside their groups.
In addition to the ordinary and mundane groups that have become hosts for anti-vaccine misinformation, some of the communities that seem to be uniting around opposition to a COVID-19 vaccine include libertarian, New Age, QAnon, and anti-government groups.
Facebook spokesperson Andrea Vallone responded to NBC News with an emailed statement that the company has worked to connect people with accurate information about vaccines and banned misleading ads.
"We also continue to remove misinformation about COVID-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm and direct people to our COVID information Center, which is available in 189 countries," she said.
Facebook since this summer has attempted various measures at limiting misinformation about the pandemic, including a more recent initiative aimed at falsehoods around the vaccinations generally that includes a prohibition on ads and the banning of anti-vaccination pages. However, it does nothing to prohibit the deliberate spread of false information about the vaccines.
The result, as Johnson observes, has produced a thriving anti-COVID-vaccine movement even as the pandemic reaches record numbers, primarily because Facebook has cracked down on misinformation about the disease itself, allowing anti-vaccination activists to circumvent Facebook and other platforms’ policy enforcement.
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