Covid19 and the rise of Instagram antivax influencers
Much attention has been given to Robert Kennedy Jr. Instagram account, specifically focusing on his series of stories and posts about Bill Gates, 5G and other conspiratorial suggestions related to Covid-19 (see NYTimes, Politifact) . In a previous post, I mapped the impact RFK Jr.’s false anti-Gates Instagram post had outside of the platform with the help of a pro-Kremlin outlet, antivax communities and conspiracy theorists on Youtube and Facebook with a reach of 1M+ users. One thing that has been left less noticed is that RFK Jr. and other prominent antivax influencers are slowly building their presence on Instagram — a platform that is not curbing efforts the same way parent company Facebook has done for the past year.
Over the past two months, RFK Jr.’s Instagram followers have almost tripled to over 350k with an engagement rate of 9–12%. In contrast, his Facebook page likes grew only 24% to 129k with an engagement rate that grew in April to ~2.8%, after being at less than 1% over the past six months. RFK Jr.’s organization, “Children’s Health Defense” Instagram account also saw a spike from 45k followers to over 70k in March-April of 2020 (a 100%+ increase) while its growth on Facebook was less than 6% (to 108k likes).
Another prominent figure in the anti-vax orbit, Shiva Ayyudari, who was credited for heralding the “fire Fauci” trend and got media attention for his misleading viral youtube interview suggesting vitamin C as a treatment for Covid-19, saw a spike in the number of followers on social media. But while on Facebook and Twitter he grew his audience “only” ~2.5 times from 80–90k to 230–240k, on Instagram the spike was seven-fold, from ~30k on 3/1/2020 to ~230k by 4/23.
Other antivaxxer accounts such as those of Sherry Tenpenny, Del Bigtree and Healthnut News’ growth on Instagram was more modest, yet exceeded their Facebook pages (though their audience on Facebook is still much bigger than Instagram).
A series of articles and tweets in Dec. 2019 — Feb. 2020 reported the emergence of the antivax movement on Instagram (see Coda Story, Vice), amidst the growing hurdles that activists and groups faced on Facebook, which included changes in search results for vaccine searches, banned content and suspensions. But it seems that not much has changed. Look for content about vaccines on Instagram, and many — if not most — of the results will be antivax. When following one of the antivax accounts, the app recommended a host of other antivax and qanon accounts. In addition to self promotion, accounts also refer to content that had been restricted or taken down on other platforms.
On 2/3/2020 Instagram CEO, Adam Mosseri responded on Twitter to Doni O’Sullivan’s comment about some search configuration that would slightly limit antivax content discovery and argued that “the main thing is that people don’t search that much on Instagram, so we’ve prioritized our wellbeing work, vaccine related and otherwise, elsewhere. We should do more work here, but need to hold ourselves accountable for having real impact.”
It would be nice if Instagram, and all other platforms, would have been more transparent about their work combating misinformation and its impact. Until then, the numbers we can measure show Instagram efforts’ impact is questionable. Truth be told, Facebook has been for many years the platform of choice for antivaxxers. It allowed antivax activists to gain followers with false messages and ads targeting vulnerable communities, it allowed groups to congregate around brigading campaigns and trolling operations of medical experts, and enabled scammers to reach out and sell false immunization solutions. But measures that have been taken over the past year seem to have slowed the growth of those communities and exposure to their pages, making the lives of scammers and profiteers harder. Perhaps its time for Instagram to consider similar measures. It will not solve the problem, but it can be another layer of mitigation.