Kaleese Williams had mostly stayed off facebook and Instagram before Covid-19 hit. But during the lock-down, the 37-year-old was stuck on her north Texas farm with her husband, their 3-year-old, and their chickens and goats. She was also cut off from a source of income. Williams sells essential oils for a multilevel marketing company in Utah called Young Living. She’d normally set up booths at conferences and other events, making a little money while socializing with passersby. “Quarantine is not a whole lot of fun,” Williams says. “So I started thinking, ‘What would be so wrong with me sharing on social media?’ ” Her plan was to take her essential oils business on Instagram, where she could sell to people she met there.
Williams decided to splurge on an online course called Ready Set Gram Pro. It promised to help her build a “highly engaged” community on the photo sharing app that would “generate consistent leads and sales.” By watching web tutorials and participating in Zoom sessions, she learned tricks to attract potential customers to her profile—for instance, by commenting on the posts of popular wellness influencers.
As she built her following to more than 1,000 users, she became engrossed by Instagram, especially the parts of the app dedicated to natural living. Williams was already averse to traditional medicine after feeling bullied during a bout of cancer in 2017, during which she says her doctor failed to disclose that a treatment she underwent could cause infertility. Now she was spending more and more time-consuming information about different forms of alternative medicine such as naturopathy and functional medicine.
That’s where she first started to read about the Covid-19 vaccine. She came across posts based on unfounded rumors that claimed the Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc. shots were toxic, caused adverse reactions, and might have infertility risks. Before long she became convinced that the Food and Drug Administration-approved vaccines, which have few side effects and are almost entirely effective at preventing hospitalization or death from Covid, were not for her. “It’s scary,” she says. “I believe in the immune system. I do not believe in vaccine-induced herd immunity.”
You’d think during the worst pandemic in a century virtually everyone would be desperate to get their hands on a vaccine that promises to help them get their life back. But you’d be underestimating the power of Facebook and Instagram to provide all the necessary tools for anti-vaccine activists and other wellness hucksters to suck in converts. Over the years, these opportunists have cultivated a strategy optimized for the social era. They drip anti-science skepticism into Facebook groups and Instagram stories and posts, where algorithms reward content that elicits strong emotional reactions, further amplifying the misinformation.
These social media influencers, legitimized by their sizable follower counts, had a full year to sow doubt about Covid vaccines before Facebook took significant action. They’ve exploited public confusion and mixed messaging from government and health officials on everything from masks to vaccine side effects and safety. Facebook’s official stance is that it doesn’t ban posts unless they “cause imminent harm”—a threshold the social network claims vaccine misinformation only crossed months into a global inoculation campaign.
Even as hesitancy persists and anti-vaccine lies continue to circulate online, Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg stalwartly defends Facebook Inc.’s actions. His critics argue the company hasn’t done enough. “The content that your websites are still promoting, still recommending, and still sharing is one of the biggest reasons people are refusing the vaccine,” Pennsylvania Representative Mike Doyle, a Democrat, said at a March 25 congressional hearing with Zuckerberg and his fellow social media CEOs. “And things haven’t changed.”
In October 2020 a group of wellness gurus with social media followings in the millions gathered virtually to discuss an historic opportunity. The world was months away from the Covid-19 immunization effort, with several vaccine makers signaling that they’d soon be seeking emergency use authorization from the FDA. These vaccine skeptics saw an opening to push a counternarrative.
In a series of discussions with the vibe of a sales conference, the speakers talked up the promise of the coming months. “All of the truths that we’ve been trying to broadcast for many, many years, there are people hearing it,” said Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of RFK, and a leading vaccine conspiracy theorist. “Those seeds are landing on very fertile ground.”
For years, activists—some with medical credentials, some with none at all—had attracted followings, especially among moms of small children, by claiming, falsely, that routine measles and mumps shots can cause autism and other maladies. Although the vast majority of Americans have ignored this and continue to get their inoculations, measles, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared eradicated from the U.S. two decades ago, has made a comeback in recent years. Even slight decreases in vaccination rates can chip away at the herd immunity needed to keep certain viruses at bay, and in 2019, the U.S. saw a 300% increase in measles cases. Among the outbreaks’ causes: “misinformation in the communities about safety” of the shots, according to the CDC.
With Covid, adults, not kids, were the first to be eligible for the shot. Still, vaccine skeptics targeted a group whose fears they knew well: young women. Last fall the groups started circulating on Facebook and Instagram a now-deleted blog post of unknown origin citing two doctors with an incorrect but frightening headline: “Head of Pfizer Research: Covid Vaccine Is Female Sterilization.” It falsely claimed that the vaccine contained a spike protein that could block the creation of a placenta and make women infertile.
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