A handful of social media accounts transmit a torrent of public health misinformation
Six months ago, Erin Mercola at Health Nut News shared a Facebook post saying it was “Pretty incredible how China is building hospitals, and 5G base stations for them, at breakneck speed to fight the coronavirus.”
This wasn’t an expression of admiration. Her followers would have seen her previous posts encouraging them to watch an anti-5G film Take back your power, or to spend $119 to attend an international summit that promised to “show you how 5G wireless is an invasive technological platform that can damage our health and privacy”.
They may even have read her husband’s article which she posted on her website titled The 5G War. At this stage, Erin didn’t need to echo the early online rumblings about how or why 5G and coronavirus might be linked – planting this small seed to her followers was enough to suggest there must be some connection.
She didn’t post about 5G and coronavirus again until early March this year, when she filmed her husband, the alternative medicine advocate Dr Joseph Mercola, promoting an immune-boosting ‘arsenal kit’ (available on Erin’s Amazon store). The kit promised to protect against coronavirus, EMF (electromagnetic fields) and 5G.
Over the course of the month, public Facebook posts linking 5G to coronavirus garnered half a million likes, clicks, comments and shares. Among those joining the trend for scare stories were the alternative medicine doctor, Dr Rashid Buttar, Instagram Scientologist Rizza Islam and Robert F Kennedy Jr. At the time, these four individuals had a combined Facebook following of over 750,000.
We have been examining the torrent of fake news about the pandemic. Despite the efforts of Facebook and fact-checkers, our data shows that public posts mentioning 5G and coronavirus have gone on to receive a further four million likes, clicks, comments and shares – and that huge measure of the flow of misinformation is calculated after we have removed the most significant ‘false positive’ accounts, by which we mean posts that were actually debunking misinformation, such as The Daily Show and BBC News.
Those numbers are just a fragment of the whole: they are only for Facebook, not other platforms like Twitter, or private groups like WhatsApp, and they are only the publicly-available posts. But what this example demonstrates is the vital role that a handful of accounts can play in getting a fake news story off the ground.
Since Tortoise’s last investigation into the Infodemic, we have gathered a sample of 145,000 Facebook and Instagram posts published since January 2020 of potential medical misinformation. The misinformation includes: purported health risks of 5G exposure; supposedly harmful ingredients found in vaccines; and conspiracies around the origins and beneficiaries of the coronavirus pandemic, most notably the conspiracy that Bill Gates planned the pandemic in order to plant microchips in us all.
In our search for the individuals who bear the most responsibility for spreading medical misinformation during a global public health crisis, we’ve been able to identify a small but influential cluster.
In our sample of misinformation, less than 7% of the accounts gained 80% of the social interactions, measured by the number of likes, shares, comments and clicks that each post generates.
Within this small group, we have further identified 156 ‘super-spreaders’ – the accounts that don’t just concentrate on one medical falsehood or conspiracy but deal in many and to great effect, accumulating more than 10,000 interactions in total. It is only a partial picture – we’re looking at public groups and verified profiles only – but the results are revealing.
On Facebook, the majority of super-spreader accounts are groups centred on a particular conspiracy (such as Pizzagate) or fandom (such as fan clubs of the republican activist, Candice Owens). Six of the super-spreaders we identified explicitly support QAnon, a conspiracy theory classified by the FBI as a domestic terrorism threat in the United States. We also found over a thousand posts containing hashtags denoting QAnon membership, such as #qanon, #wwg1wga (it stands for Where We Go One We Go All) and #wakeup.
But on both Facebook and Instagram the accounts most successful at spreading medical misinformation are named individuals. In our sample, most successful of all is Robert Kennedy Jr, the nephew of President John F Kennedy and son of Bobby Kennedy. But he’s not alone.
Super-spreaders operate in overlapping communities, using collaboration as a tactic to boost their reach and following. It’s a mutually beneficial system, albeit one that Kennedy appears to benefit the most from. Among all the medical misinformation posts we gathered from Instagram since January, his account receives the highest number of mentions – 95 in total, more than President Donald Trump.
Kennedy explicitly acknowledges and celebrates this ecosystem of mutual support. In an Instagram post from late April, he cites “the solidarity that is critical to our success”, praising “Our community’s most prominent and effective leaders, including Del Bigtree, Polly & Bella Tommey, Mark Blaxill, Dr Rashid Buttar, Samoan-Australian activist Taylor Winterstein, and Massachusetts health freedom leader Candace [note: actually, it is Candice] Edwards.” Three of those individuals appear in our dataset of super-spreaders.
A note on our methodology
The World Health Organisation has said: “In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the phenomenon of an ‘infodemic’ has escalated to a level that requires a coordinated response.” An infodemic is an overabundance of information – some accurate and some not – occurring during an epidemic.
Infodemics make it hard for people to find trustworthy sources and reliable guidance at a time when they need it most. And they have real-life consequences. By analysing public social media data, we hoped to discover important sources of medical misinformation and contribute to a greater shared understanding of how potentially harmful public content spreads online. We hope it will contribute to wider efforts to ensure our online conversations are safer, more reliable and more accurate. How we gathered 145,000 Facebook and Instagram posts containing potential medical misinformation First, we identified 11 examples of verified public health misinformation or unverified claims relating to public health. These include:
- claims that Bill Gates planned the pandemic;
- that coronavirus is man-made and the result of a leak from a Chinese bioweapons research lab;
- that boosting “natural immunity” can prevent catching coronavirus;
- that vaccines are unsafe;
- that face masks are unsafe;
- and that 5G is dangerous to human health. We have checked that these claims have been found to be false or unverified by independent checkers, such as Full Fact, or reputable news outlets, such as the BBC.
We then ran keyword searches to retrieve posts likely to be spreading these examples of misinformation from Facebook Pages, Facebook Groups, Verified Facebook profiles and public Instagram accounts using CrowdTangle’s API. After filtering out the most impactful ‘false positive’ accounts who were debunking the misinformation (such as fact-checking sites and reputable news organisations) we were left with a sample of 135,245 unique Facebook posts and 10,593 unique Instagram posts published between 1 January and 17 July 2020. How we identified “super-spreaders” of medical misinformation We grouped the medical misinformation posts by account in order to see which had spread the most misinformation most effectively. We defined a super-spreader as any account that has spread medical misinformation on more than one topic and accumulated more than 10,000 interactions on Facebook or Instagram for these posts. We double-checked our list of super-spreaders to ensure we weren’t including false positives and categorised each account as either a ‘conspiracy group’, an ‘interest group’, a ‘fan group’ or an individual. Data protection We have contacted the individual super-spreaders named in this piece to let them know that we have collected their social media posts and ask questions about these posts. We have ensured that we are only tracking public posts: our data source, CrowdTangle, exclusively tracks public data and is not able to track any private content. This means that any accounts, Pages, Groups, etc. that have privacy settings enabled or any type of gating (i.e. age-gating or geo-gating) cannot be added to their database. We have also ensured we are not collecting any demographic information about the account holders behind the social media posts or the users who have interacted with these posts. Ella Hollowood
We don’t know why super-spreaders are determined to sow distrust in public health during a pandemic and it is likely the reasons vary. There is undoubtedly a profit motive for some; Eric Nepute, a chiropractor described on YouTube as a “real doctor telling it like it is” has already received a warning from the Federal Trade Commission for unlawfully advertising products and services that promise to treat or prevent Covid-19. For others, spreading misinformation may stem from a desire for attention – we found a few retired celebrities in our list.
But what does seem to unite, strengthen and in many ways define super-spreaders is a shared ‘conspiracy mindset’ that is just as capable of welcoming environmentalists and anti-capitalists on the left, as libertarians defending freedom of choice on the right.
Fundamental to this conspiracy mindset is the idea of ‘censorship’, a term that was mentioned in more than 900 posts in our sample. It provides the ultimate defence. When one of Kennedy’s Instagram posts was marked as partly false by fact-checkers in May, a follower responded: “Who do they think they are to tell us what is false and what not? If the truth doesn’t fit into their narrative, they call it false and take it down. We shall not be silenced!”
And it is a response that won’t be going away any time soon. Following Twitter’s announcement in July of a crackdown on QAnon content, Erin the Health Nut posted on Facebook: “I guess you can’t even post about Q anon anymore on Twitter. Anyway I’m open to any and all opinions and what I loved about the viral thread that I had is there were so many different opinions.”
Apart from Robert Kennedy Jr, none of the individual super-spreaders we identified have responded to detailed questions that we put to them. We interviewed Robert Kennedy Jr as part of this series and he answered some of our questions, but he did not wish to engage in writing with a detailed set of questions about his activities.