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 companies benefit from each other.
That is the central finding of our new report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, “The Anti-Vaxx Industry: How Tech Giants Power and Profit from Vaccine Misinformation.”
So how does it work? Take Californian David “Avocado” Wolfe. Wolfe is not a medical doctor, but Facebook distributes his health advice to more than 12 million followers, who go on to share it with millions more. He posts this free advice for a simple reason: he wants to sell his range of 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 acts as his shop front, serving ads to his adherents, many of whom will put us all at risk by refusing to take a coronavirus vaccine.
For anti-vaxx entrepreneurs, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a business opportunity. Alongside posts attacking a potential COVID-19 vaccine, Wolfe encourages his followers to buy his brand of colloidal silver, a potentially harmful false cure, calling it “my #1 recommendation under the current crisis.” Facebook has even let Wolfe promote the product in paid advertisements.
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 7 million followers during the COVID-19 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 59 percent of U.S. citizens plan to get a COVID-19 vaccine. This is far too low to reach the 82 percent population immunity that scientists say we need to safely manage a disease as contagious as the coronavirus.
Anti-vaxxers leverage social media
Just as significantly, this polling shows that social media use and vaccine refusal are linked. Among those who use social media more than traditional media to access news and updates about COVID-19, 56 percent in the United States say they will get a vaccine, compared to 66 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 decided against the removal of anti-vaxx content and accounts. Instead anti-vaxx content would be hidden or labeled.
Our report shows that this decision has been disastrous, allowing the anti-vaxx industry to reach more than 40 million followers from the start of the pandemic. Just three anti-vaxx accounts in our sample of 409 had been removed by Facebook since 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 advertisement from the pro-vaccine Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was displayed on anti-vaxx content on YouTube, while Facebook’s Ads Library reveals that it has accepted money for anti-vaxx advertisements.
Tech firms need to enforce standards
All of this powers a vast anti-vaxx ecosystem. It includes anti-vaxx campaigns funded by millionaires who have been pumping out misinformation on social media for more than a decade in some cases. It includes an array of alternative health hucksters and professional conspiracists keen to cash in on people’s worries about COVID-19. These actors exploit the spaces provided by Facebook groups to turn vaccine skeptics into die-hard anti-vaxxers.
It’s 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-19 and health misinformation.
An earlier report by the Center, #WillToAct, showed that when a team of youth volunteers organized by the Center for Countering Digital Hate and Restless Development reported coronavirus misinformation that breached their terms of service to social media companies, less than 10% of posts were taken down. It was only under the glare of the publicity generated by our report that they sheepishly 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 amid the pandemic.
Imran Ahmed is founder and CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. He was appointed to the steering committee of the United Kingdom’s Commission on Countering Extremism Pilot Task Force in April.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Even in COVID-19 pandemic, tech firms profit from anti-vaxx movement