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Anti-vaxx groups spend nearly $1 billion on social media
Fear-mongering is now a billion-dollar industry.
- The Center for Countering Digital Hate found that anti-vaxx groups reach 58 million users on social media, earning the platforms roughly $1B in revenue.
- The Center's founder, Imran Ahmed, says giving anti-vaxxers attention feeds the algorithms, further perpetuating the noise.
- In this interview with Big Think, Ahmed says the best thing we can do is offer credible information to change the algorithms.
Disinformation is rampant. On Monday, a group named "America's Frontline Doctors" held a press conference outside of the U.S. Supreme Court to tout the miracles of hydroxychloroquine, despite contrary evidence. Videos from the event are flooding social media, with the expectable "these doctors are being silenced" rhetoric. This "conspiracy" was boosted when Twitter restricted Donald Trump Jr's account after he shared the doctors claim that masks are unnecessary for preventing the spread of COVID-19.
Who are these doctors wearing branded white coats?
The founder of this group is Simone Gold, a Burbank-based physician with ties to rightwing groups such as ALEC, FreedomWorks Foundation, and Tea Party Patriots (which backed this event). The group's website was launched 12 days ago and has since been taken down. There's Stella Immanuel, a Houston doctor that believes in world leaders are secretly lizards and having sex with witches and demons, and that dreaming has negative consequences. James Todaro also spoke, who, despite claiming to be on the frontline, hasn't seen a patient since 2018. An event of this magnitude wouldn't be complete without one of the Bakersfield doctors, Daniel Erickson.
The follow-up question: How do you even begin to counter such disinformation?
"If you see misinformation, ignore it, because engaging with it helps the platforms accomplish the goal of further spreading it," says Imran Ahmed, founder of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. "Block the person that sent it, then find some good information and share it to try to balance out the algorithmic logic that underpins it."
Ahmed knows the dangers of internet rabbit holes. He founded the CCDH in 2017 to study the proliferation of identity-based hate in digital spaces, though he recently told me they began to focus solely on the coronavirus in early March. The stakes during a pandemic are too high to ignore.
The first result of that effort is the publication of a 34-page report, "The Anti-Vaxx Industry: Big Tech powers and profits from vaccine misinformation." After months of investigation, the team discovered anti-vaxx organizations reach 58 million people on social media. Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have earned nearly $1 billion in revenue from these groups—and Ahmed was lowballing that sum.
"If we were wrong and our calculations were bad, they would have gone after us. I suspect that because we're incredibly conservative, we may have underestimated it. If they challenged it, they would have to give a real number, and that real number could be substantially higher."
Anti-vaxx organizations earn social media platforms $1B
When I ask Ahmed why these groups spend so much money promoting anti-vaxx disinformation, he laughs while claiming he's not a psychologist. Though he attended medical school, he focuses on the dangers that platforms pose to society. Right now, Big Tech has found a strange bedfellow in the anti-vaxx movement.
"These platforms were not designed for free speech. The timeline is not about reading the most recent thing. It's an algorithmic list of content which prioritizes that information which is most engaging."
The report does reveal interesting clues on the men behind these efforts. The most influential anti-vaxx organizations are funded by osteopath Joseph Mercola, who runs a dietary supplement and medical device company and gives financial support to the National Vaccine Information Center and the Organic Consumers Association, as well as by fund manager Bernard Selz, who ponies up three-fourths of the money that supports the Informed Action Consent Network.
Mercola is easy: he uses fear-mongering to sell supplements, which has put over $100 million into his bank account. Since the start of the pandemic, Mercola has claimed at least 22 vitamins and supplements prevent or cure COVID-19. Vaccines misinformation is just one of his techniques. Previously, he's stated that microwaves alters the chemistry of food, mobile phones cause cancer, and pasteurized milk causes negative health effects.
Selz is harder to figure out. His philanthropic work is extensive thanks to his management of a $500 million fund. His anti-vaxx efforts, including $1.6 million given to discredited physician Andrew Wakefield, which he used to fund the movement's opus, "Vaxxed," appear to be a passion project. Since the Selz family avoids media contact, other reasons may be obscured.
Anti-vaxx sentiment is not new, but social media has given it steroids. As Ahmed notes, anti-vaxxers use the same tactics as other hate groups: don't trust authorities; disseminate conspiracy theories to create confusion; claim to be the sole authority on a topic.
Shortly after quarantine began, health misinformation actors merged with a hardcore group of committed anti-vaxxers to create what Ahmed calls "a coalition of chaos." Over the preceding months, this coalition has tested out a number of ideas: 5G causes COVID-19, which had a moment and then faded; track and trace is part of a global effort to microchip you, which never really caught on; and coronavirus vaccines are part of an elite capitalist conspiracy. The latter is persistent and having real-world consequences.
Dr. Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), holds up a model of COVID-19, known as coronavirus, during a US Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the plan to research, manufacture and distribute a coronavirus vaccine, known as Operation Warp Speed, July 2, 2020 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images
Vaccine hesitancy in the UK is around 30 percent, according to Ahmed. In the U.S., he pegs it at 40 percent, though one poll found that only half of Americans are confident that they'll get a vaccine (if one is created). Enter the danger: herd immunity is different for every virus, though certainly over 50 percent. Ahmed says that confusion over a COVID-19 vaccine could result in the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
As more people turn to social media for medical advice, Ahmed reminds us that platforms are part of the problem. You might think you're doing a public service by debating your anti-vaxxer friend. In reality, you're confirming algorithmic bias.
"The biggest mistake we've made is thinking that public opinion will change their views. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Google don't care about your opinion, because you're not their customer. You're their product."
Change agents target weak points, such as advertisers. Ahmed suggests a ruthless, sustained push, similar to the orchestrated effort that resulted in hundreds of brands pulling advertising from Facebook and Instagram. This month-long boycott is over unenforced hate speech policies.
Far from bucking the system, anti-vaxxers are fueling the capitalist greed they claim to decry. Discussing anti-vaxx sentiments, Eula Biss writes in "On Immunity" that, "wealthier nations have the luxury of entertaining fears the rest of the world cannot afford." She compares vaccine refusal as a form of civil disobedience to the trappings of capitalism: anti-vaxxers are more like the 1 percent than the 99 percent. They're looking out for their own self-interest instead of the good of the herd, relying on propaganda promoted by wealthy donors with vested interests as their "research."
This coalition of chaos, in cahoots with the platforms they fund, is capitalizing on vaccine disinformation. The farther from science they lead us, the better. The more enraged we become, the more attention they capture, which is where this new economy thrives.
- 7 reasons to be very wary of "The Plandemic" - Big Think ›
- How a 22-year-old fabricated vaccine study affects us today - Big Think ›
Evolution doesn't clean up after itself very well.
- An evolutionary biologist got people swapping ideas about our lingering vestigia.
- Basically, this is the stuff that served some evolutionary purpose at some point, but now is kind of, well, extra.
- Here are the six traits that inaugurated the fun.
The plica semilunaris<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwMS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3NDg5NTg1NX0.kdBYMvaEzvCiJjcLEPgnjII_KVtT9RMEwJFuXB68D8Q/img.png?width=980" id="59914" width="429" height="350" data-rm-shortcode-id="b11e4be64c5e1f58bf4417d8548bedc7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
The human eye in alarming detail. Image source: Henry Gray / Wikimedia commons<p>At the inner corner of our eyes, closest to the nasal ridge, is that little pink thing, which is probably what most of us call it, called the caruncula. Next to it is the plica semilunairs, and it's what's left of a third eyelid that used to — ready for this? — blink horizontally. It's supposed to have offered protection for our eyes, and some birds, reptiles, and fish have such a thing.</p>
Palmaris longus<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgwNy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzQ1NjUwMn0.dVor41tO_NeLkGY9Tx46SwqhSVaA8HZQmQAp532xLxA/img.jpg?width=980" id="879be" width="1920" height="2560" data-rm-shortcode-id="4089a32ea9fbb1a0281db14332583ccd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmaris longus muscle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> We don't have much need these days, at least most of us, to navigate from tree branch to tree branch. Still, about 86 percent of us still have the wrist muscle that used to help us do it. To see if you have it, place the back of you hand on a flat surface and touch your thumb to your pinkie. If you have a muscle that becomes visible in your wrist, that's the palmaris longus. If you don't, consider yourself more evolved (just joking).</p>
Darwin's tubercle<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NjgxMi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0ODUyNjA1MX0.8RuU-OSRf92wQpaPPJtvFreOVvicEwn39_jnbegiUOk/img.jpg?width=980" id="687a0" width="819" height="1072" data-rm-shortcode-id="ff5edf0a698e0681d11efde1d7872958" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Darwin's tubercle. Image source: Wikimedia commons<p> Yes, maybe the shell of you ear does feel like a dried apricot. Maybe not. But there's a ridge in that swirly structure that's a muscle which allowed us, at one point, to move our ears in the direction of interesting sounds. These days, we just turn our heads, but there it is.</p>
Goosebumps<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNzEyNTc2Nn0.aVMa5fsKgiabW5vkr7BOvm2pmNKbLJF_50bwvd4aRo4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d8420" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="8827e55511c8c3aed8c36d21b6541dbd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Goosebumps. Photo credit: Tyler Olson via Shutterstock<p>It's not entirely clear what purpose made goosebumps worth retaining evolutionarily, but there are two circumstances in which they appear: fear and cold. For fear, they may have been a way of making body hair stand up so we'd appear larger to predators, much the way a cat's tail puffs up — numerous creatures exaggerate their size when threatened. In the cold, they may have trapped additional heat for warmth.</p>
Tailbone<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMxNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY3MzQwMjc3N30.nBGAfc_O9sgyK_lOUo_MHzP1vK-9kJpohLlj9ax1P8s/img.jpg?width=980" id="9a2f6" width="1440" height="1440" data-rm-shortcode-id="4fe28368d2ed6a91a4c928d4254cc02a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Decade3d-anatomy online via Shutterstock<p>Way back, we had tails that probably helped us balance upright, and was useful moving through trees. We still have the stump of one when we're embryos, from 4–6 weeks, and then the body mostly dissolves it during Weeks 6–8. What's left is the coccyx.</p>
The palmar grasp reflex<img class="rm-lazyloadable-image rm-shortcode" type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA5NzMyMC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjY0MDY5NX0.OSwReKLmNZkbAS12-AvRaxgCM7zyukjQUaG4vmhxTtM/img.jpg?width=980" id="8804c" width="1440" height="960" data-rm-shortcode-id="67542ee1c5a85807b0a7e63399e44575" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Palmar reflex activated! Photo credit: Raul Luna on Flickr<p> You've probably seen how non-human primate babies grab onto their parents' hands to be carried around. We used to do this, too. So still, if you touch your finger to a baby's palm, or if you touch the sole of their foot, the palmar grasp reflex will cause the hand or foot to try and close around your finger.</p>
Other people's suggestions<p>Amir's followers dove right in, offering both cool and questionable additions to her list. </p>
Fangs?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Lower mouth plate behind your teeth. Some have protruding bone under the skin which is a throw back to large fangs. Almost like an upsidedown Sabre Tooth.</p>— neil crud (@neilcrud66) <a href="https://twitter.com/neilcrud66/status/1085606005000601600?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hiccups<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sure: <a href="https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG">https://t.co/DjMZB1XidG</a></p>— Stephen Roughley (@SteBobRoughley) <a href="https://twitter.com/SteBobRoughley/status/1085529239556968448?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Hypnic jerk as you fall asleep<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">What about when you “jump” just as you’re drifting off to sleep, I heard that was a reflex to prevent falling from heights.</p>— Bann face (@thebanns) <a href="https://twitter.com/thebanns/status/1085554171879788545?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script> <p> This thing, often called the "alpha jerk" as you drop into alpha sleep, is properly called the hypnic jerk,. It may actually be a carryover from our arboreal days. The <a href="https://www.livescience.com/39225-why-people-twitch-falling-asleep.html" target="_blank" data-vivaldi-spatnav-clickable="1">hypothesis</a> is that you suddenly jerk awake to avoid falling out of your tree.</p>
Nails screeching on a blackboard response?<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Everyone hate the sound of fingernails on a blackboard. It's _speculated_ that this is a vestigial wiring in our head, because the sound is similar to the shrill warning call of a chimp. <a href="https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN">https://t.co/ReyZBy6XNN</a></p>— Pet Rock (@eclogiter) <a href="https://twitter.com/eclogiter/status/1085587006258888706?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ear hair<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Ok what is Hair in the ears for? I think cuz as we get older it filters out the BS.</p>— Sarah21 (@mimix3) <a href="https://twitter.com/mimix3/status/1085684393593561088?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Nervous laughter<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">You may be onto something. Tooth-bearing with the jaw clenched is generally recognized as a signal of submission or non-threatening in primates. Involuntary smiling or laughing in tense situations might have signaled that you weren’t a threat.</p>— Jager Tusk (@JagerTusk) <a href="https://twitter.com/JagerTusk/status/1085316201104912384?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 15, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Um, yipes.<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-conversation="none" data-lang="en"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sometimes it feels like my big toe should be on the side of my foot, was that ever a thing?</p>— B033? K@($ (@whimbrel17) <a href="https://twitter.com/whimbrel17/status/1085559016011563009?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">January 16, 2019</a></blockquote> <script async src="https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js" charset="utf-8"></script>
Ultimately, this is a fight between a giant reptile and a giant primate.
The 2021 film “Godzilla vs. Kong" pits the two most iconic movie monsters of all time against each other. And fans are now picking sides.
The more you see them, the better you get at spotting the signs.