AILSA CHANG, HOST:
In the fight to persuade skeptics to get COVID-19 vaccine shots, public health officials face a big hurdle - anti-vaccine claims, many of which come from a handful of influential social media figures. NPR's Shannon Bond reports
SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: This problem is nothing new to people who track misinformation. Many misleading claims and outright lies about COVID vaccines mirror what's been said about other vaccines. John Gregory is deputy health editor at NewsGuard.
JOHN GREGORY: You know, it's almost like a conspiracy theory Mad Libs. They just inserted the new claims.
BOND: And it's not just the claims that are familiar, it's who is making them. Just 12 people dubbed the disinformation dozen are responsible for the bulk of anti-vaccine content on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, researchers found. Imran Ahmed is CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which identified these figures.
IMRAN AHMED: The disinformation dozen produce 65% of the shares of anti-vaccine misinformation on social media platforms. They're producing the most shared content.
BOND: Some focus on natural health. Some sell supplements and books. And many have long spread scientifically disproven medical claims and conspiracies. And they're still doing it now, proving how hard it is to stop hoaxes on social media. Ahmed says the claims they make about COVID come straight from the anti-vaccination playbook,
AHMED: Denying that COVID exists, claiming that false cures are in fact the way to solve COVID and not vaccination, decrying vaccines and decrying doctors as being in some way venal or motivated by other factors when they recommend vaccines.
BOND: Lawmakers and state regulators have urged Facebook and Twitter to ban all 12 accounts. A note - Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters. The companies have stepped up the fight. They've labeled posts, even removed falsehoods and banned people who repeatedly share debunked claims. Still, the disinformation dozen are easy to find on social media. Ahmed says sometimes they skirt the platform's rules by using codes.
AHMED: So, for example, instead of saying vaccine, they may in a video hold up the V sign with their fingers and say, if you're around someone who has been - hold up V sign - you know, X might happen to you
BOND: Or they take something true and distort it, like falsely linking a famous person's death to the fact they got a vaccine days or weeks earlier. Facebook says it now limits the reach of posts that could discourage people from getting vaccinated, even if they don't explicitly break its rules. Some of the disinformation dozen have toned down their posts, but the cat-and-mouse game continues. Take anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
ROBERT F KENNEDY JR: I have to post like unicorns and kitty cat pictures on there. I can't post anything. It doesn't matter how true it is.
BOND: Facebook, which owns Instagram, kicked Kennedy off the photo-sharing app in February, but he's still on Facebook. There, he advertises his website, a newsletter where he makes claims that would break Facebook's rules if posted there. Kennedy told NPR he's never posted misinformation and accused Facebook of censorship. He says the crackdown has sapped his ability to raise donations.
KENNEDY: It's cost us hundreds of thousands of dollars.
BOND: Even as the social media companies have gotten tougher recently, researchers worry the persistence of these hoaxes will further erode confidence among people who are already hesitant about the COVID vaccines. That's especially concerning as shots roll out for kids 12 and up. Jessica Calarco is a sociologist at Indiana University. She's found more than a quarter of parents don't plan to vaccinate their kids.
JESSICA CALARCO: So many of these moms are turning to Facebook, are turning to Twitter, turning to other social media platforms. And they're saying, every time I open my phone, I see something different.
BOND: Like stories about bad side effects. Even some parents who have been giving their kids routine childhood vaccines said they're unsure about COVID jabs.
CALARCO: And those kinds of social media-based reports are, in many mothers' minds, kind of weighed equally against the kinds of expert medical recommendations coming out of things like the CDC.
BOND: And that could make it hard to push down infection rates. Shannon Bond, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.