Shortly after Facebook announced new policies against anti-vaccination content this week, one of the site’s largest anti-vax groups removed “vaccine” from its name. In another group, a moderator polled members about the best way to “beat the algorithm” and keep the page’s posts live.
As COVID-19 vaccines have become available, Facebook has tried to crack down on its long-simmering vaccine disinformation problem. On Monday, the company announced new rules against false claims about vaccines, and on Wednesday, Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) banned prominent vaccine opponents like Robert F. Kennedy Jr and Del Bigtree.
But banning big names is no longer even close to enough to quash conspiracy theories about vaccines, researchers say. A huge network of anti-vax pages—some of which are deliberately trying to evade bans—have already brought the hoax to the masses, and early signs pointed to the potential for the belated crackdown to actually radicalize people even further.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic swept America, researchers like Neil Johnson were concerned about the influence of anti-vaccination Facebook pages. Johnson—a professor at George Washington University—and colleagues set out to map Facebook’s vaccination content in a spring 2020 paper. They expected to find big, pro-vaccine pages like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “at the center of the universe” of Facebook interactions, Johnson told The Daily Beast.
Instead, the opposite was true. Although pro-vaccine pages like the CDC and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had large followings, few people interacted with those pages’ posts. Anti-vaxxer pages, by contrast, were smaller but deeply entangled with everyday Facebook groups for parents and pet-lovers and fans of health food, where users shared vaccine misinformation. Moderate-sized anti-vax pages—and pages that were not explicitly anti-vaccine—were swaying the internet against inoculation.
The spread of anti-vaxxer content only accelerated with the pandemic.
“It’s that picture, but on steroids,” Johnson said, noting that vaccine-hesitant Americans are sharing a wide range of conspiratorial COVID content. “While the narrative was previously about things like Gardasil vaccine, it’s now about not just COVID vaccines, but also the entire spectrum of COVID mitigation measures: about masks, about COVID itself, about COVID’s origin. That’s all becoming entangled.”
Nowhere have those entanglements been more visible than at a recent anti-vaccination protest in Los Angeles attended by a collection of anti-mask activists, fringe political candidates, and participants in the rally that preceded the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. The demonstration notoriously served to temporarily halt admission to one of America’s largest vaccination sites, and was promoted on a prominent anti-mask Facebook group that has powered disturbing attacks on malls and other spaces in the L.A. area.
Johnson and colleagues released a new working paper this month measuring interactions between outwardly mainstream parenting groups and hardcore conspiracy groups on Facebook. Since the pandemic kicked off, the two groups have become 22 percent more enmeshed, the paper found. (Facebook did not immediately return a request for comment for this story.)
That means purging anti-vaxxer content from Facebook is a lot more complicated than deleting a few prominent groups or banning some influencers.
Still, vaccine opponents are likening the modest onslaught to vicious state oppression, with the moderator of one large group going so far as to argue the ban was communist because content was deemed to violate “community standards.”
“COMMUNITY? COMMUNIST? COMMUNISM?” he wrote. “We are here now folks.”
But many of those groups appear to have evaded the bans, some by simply changing their names to omit “vaccine.” In another state-level anti-vax Facebook group, members encouraged each other to network outside of the page, which they expected would soon be banned. “LET"S CONNECT NOW - before we can’t,” read a pinned post.
Others still have urged members to join backup pages on alternative social-media sites that are friendlier to fringe ideologies—moves Johnson said worry him. Far-right and white supremacists groups have attempted to make inroads with anti-vaxxers, posting links to racist websites’ anti-vax videos in large Facebook groups for vaccine skeptics. The crossover is even more extreme in some channels on the messaging platform Telegram that have promoted open neo-Nazism in groups with COVID-themed titles. (Telegram did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.)
The anti-vaxxer movement’s longtime spread on Facebook means many vaccine-hesitant people are not well-versed in extreme conspiracy theories, but that they might be newly exposed to them on other sites. One such spin-off group, reviewed by The Daily Beast, had far fewer members than its original Facebook page, but was sharing graphic content about supposed human organ harvesting.
If a crackdown by the largest social media platform on Earth was long overdue, the fear is that anti-vaxxers are too diffuse to be reined in—that months and years of indoctrination mean many are too far gone.
“A lot of them are moms worried about their kids being well,” Johnson said. “You see them directing each other onto—it was Parler, but now it’s things like Telegram.”