AAs struggling social media platform Twitter rolled out a paid verification system and fired thousands of content moderators, health misinformation accounts on the social network began spreading their messages to a wider audience. than ever.
Under Elon Musk’s new leadership for Twitter, several anti-vaccine accounts with tens of thousands of followers are now verified by paying $7.99 a month for Twitter Blue.
Social media sites have long struggled with misleading information and content moderation.
“There has always been misinformation on the platforms,” said Sarah Barry, a vaccine advocate. Social media companies “only respond when something is reported, but they don’t proactively monitor these groups,” she said.
Some tools, like Twitter verification, were intended to combat identity theft on the platform by verifying the identities of government officials, public agencies, celebrities, journalists and others.
But the tools are now being used to create a false sense of validity to spread dangerous lies, including about vaccines. And groups on other platforms, like Facebook, continue to circumvent moderation by making minor changes to their names and the terms they use to promote anti-vaccine agendas.
Verified accounts are often seen as reliable and trustworthy, and Twitter’s algorithm ranks them higher in search results, replies, and follow recommendations.
“There’s a sense of legitimacy that goes with it,” Barry said. “By verifying this anti-vaccine account, they’re sort of verifying all the misinformation he’s sharing… it makes people think, ‘Oh, well, that’s a verified account. It must be true.
Prior to the leadership change, Twitter was working to remove some accounts that spread anti-vaccine misinformation.
But “now it looks like Twitter is giving these accounts some legitimacy,” said Peter Hotez, a vaccine specialist and dean of tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
“It looks like now they’re going to go in the wrong direction and actually help promote groups that tout anti-vaccine and anti-science misinformation.”
Users have already tested the new system by impersonating leading brands, such as pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, leading to sharp declines in the company’s stock price and a call to reassess insulin prices.
The change in Twitter’s rules also means that paid verified accounts can reach a wider audience – and, with deep reductions in moderation, accounts could continue to spread misleading and harmful information.
Other anti-vax advocates were already legitimized by social media platforms. Robert F Kennedy Jr, a leading anti-vaccine propagandist, already had a verified account on Twitter before the new verification system, and international and regional chapters of his anti-vaccine group, Children’s Health Defense, are still active on Twitter. Facebook.
Facebook groups shut down for vaccine misinformation are quickly coming back, and users are avoiding bans simply by changing the words they use.
Facebook group administrators, like Tiago Henrique Fernandes, are re-creating banned groups using slightly different names, like DSN Official instead of Died Suddenly News, while keeping the same focus on anti-science messaging.
Fernandes advises members not to write certain words that will be picked up by moderators, he explained during a recent program produced by Children’s Health Defense.
Facebook’s algorithms look for keywords — like vaccine, vaccine, and mRNA — to flag potential issues.
“Basically, I train members to… get away from that kind of language and get more into undercover, what I call ‘carnival talk’ – that way the algorithms can’t figure it out” , did he declare.
Band members often refer to vaccines as foods — “cookie,” “peaches,” “cheeseburger” — or use deliberate misspellings, especially for alleged side effects like seizures (“see jures”) or cancer (“can sir”).
A phrase that is gaining momentum in the anti-vax world is “sudden death”, which can be used in official media to refer to any sudden death, making automatic moderation more difficult.
A Died Suddenly Twitter account, which was verified through paid program Twitter Blue, plans to post a documentary promoting vaccine misinformation on Monday.
In a trailer for the film, 12 people are shown passing out or convulsing, with the implication that they died from vaccines. In fact, at least four of the people featured did not die and there was no connection to vaccines in their fainting episodes.
The trailer also shows footage of Megyn Kelly, a SiriusXM host, talking about her sister’s heart attack. But the trailer doesn’t show Kelly’s discussion of their family history of heart attacks.
“That’s what anti-vaccine activists do — they take real or factoid facts, but they use them to tell a false narrative,” Hotez said.
In recent years, there has been a significant increase in excess deaths – mortality above the averages of previous years – from Covid-19. It is an extremely dangerous disease, especially for those who are not yet vaccinated, which can cause lasting damage to cardiovascular health and other organ systems.
“That’s how the virus works,” Hotez said. “That’s why we vaccinate – we vaccinate to prevent sudden death.”
According to one analysis, more than 300,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 because they weren’t vaccinated — more than six times the number of Americans who died from gun violence in 2020, for example.
Vaccines to prevent serious illness and death from Covid-19 are extremely safe and effective, with millions of people around the world being vaccinated.
Despite this, anti-vaccine propaganda has increased dramatically during the pandemic. Anti-vaccine activists “were prepared for a pandemic to happen,” and they were ready to exploit it, Barry said.
Checking anti-vax accounts and elevating their social media posts further entrenches anti-vaccine ideology in our culture, Barry said. “Anything that legitimizes them further, the extent of their influence gets even worse, and people don’t even realize that the origin of it is anti-vax.”