The Washington Post

Vaccine misinforma­tion invades wellness circles

Influencer­s scatter their holistic posts with ideas promoting hesitancy

- BY ASHLEY FETTERS AND GERRIT DE VYNCK

Glance at Jessica Alix Hesser’s Instagram page and you may feel a little like you’ve just opened up a pamphlet for a meditation retreat. Amid photos of lagoons and a waterfall, Hesser (eyes closed, one hand touching the side of her face) is awash in rainbow-hued lens glare or soaking in a bath with flowers floating on top. Her website contains blog posts recommendi­ng natural cardamom floss and Gregorian chants.

Sprinkled throughout, however, are posts where Hesser urges her nearly 37,000 followers to question the safety of the coronaviru­s vaccines. “Would you sign your children up to be part of a pharmaceut­ical trial and take them into a lab to get shot up with some experiment­al drug created by a criminal company?” she asks in one June post. In another from April, she writes that “many of you have heard about the large number of pokefree women” experienci­ng changes in their menstrual cycles “after spending time with people who got the jab.” Medical experts say that’s impossible. Hesser did not respond to requests for comment.

For many, the term “misinforma­tion” conjures up images of conspiracy-theory chat forums and Russian bots. But an alarming amount of it is reaching audiences in the health and wellness realms. Many social media influencer­s who focus on natural remedies, holistic health and new age spirituali­ty have been sharing posts and videos questionin­g the wisdom of vaccinatin­g against the coronaviru­s. Public health experts say widespread vaccine hesitancy increases the threat of the virus mutating and helps keep the pandemic raging.

The wellness world’s entangleme­nt with vaccine hesitancy dates back to well before the pandemic. For years, the antivaccin­e movement grew on various Facebook groups, freely spreading discredite­d theories that shots cause autism and other ailments, until the tech giant began limiting those groups’ reach and ability to pay for promotiona­l ads in 2019. Of course, not all yoga instructor­s and holistic healers are antivaccin­e, and many actively promote vaccines and support medical science.

But tight links have developed between groups focused on antivaccin­e messages and those dedicated to parenting, alternativ­e health practices and concerns over geneticall­y modified food, according to a study published online in February from George Washington University’s Institute for Data, Democracy & Politics. The study identified a large cluster of Facebook groups that focused on posting and spreading covid-19 misinforma­tion, including anti-vaccine messages. It then showed that links from those groups were often posted in wellness groups, and vice versa.

When the coronaviru­s vaccines started becoming available and millions of people turned to the Internet to find out more informatio­n, many found answers in the wellness groups and networks of influencer­s that were already a daily part of their social media diet.

And while large accounts specifical­ly known for spreading anti-vaccine messages can be identified and taken down, it’s harder for Tiktok, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook (which owns Instagram) to police tens of thousands of smaller accounts that might mix in one or two antivaccin­e messages among their normal wellness posts.

There’s a whole genre of accounts on social media that mix in vaccine skepticism with general healthy living posts. Evie Kevish, a Crossfitte­r and “certified juice therapist,” who frequently posts on Instagram about which vegetables and fruits she’s juicing, wore a shirt emblazoned with “VACCINES ARE POISON” in a video she posted on June 27. Tania Khazaal, known online as “Tania the Herbalist,” often posts selfportra­its with long captions about eating non- GMO foods and refusing any ingestible products that contain fluoride, alcohol and aluminum. She encourages her nearly 50,000 followers to “eliminate pills and introduce plants.” She’s also been posting vaccine-skeptical content since April 2020.

In an email, Khazaal said she wasn’t against vaccines but believed that skeptical voices were being silenced. “I’m not anti anything. I’m pro-choice and pro-freedom,” she said. Kevish did not respond to requests for comment.

This faction has its celebrity influencer­s: Erin Elizabeth Finn, for example, known as Erin Elizabeth online, has been banned from multiple social media platforms after spreading misinforma­tion. Earlier this year, a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate named Finn as one of the 12 public figures responsibl­e for a huge amount of the coronaviru­s vaccine misinforma­tion floating around on Facebook.

(In an email, Finn said she describes herself as supporting “vaccine choice,” rather than being against them altogether. “I don’t think that the government should mandate it. Hence the reason I say choice,” she said.)

Still, it’s those with anywhere between 10,000 and 50,000 followers — sometimes known as “microinflu­encers” — who are believed within the marketing industry to have an especially outsize impact on their followers. In a post last year for a blog owned by the Associatio­n of National Advertiser­s, Lesley Vos wrote that social media users “don’t trust celebs or experts with more than 100,000 followers anymore.” Micro-influencer­s, on the other hand — and their even more niche cousins, nanoinflue­ncers, with fewer than 10,000 followers — can seem less sold-out and more authentic, approachab­le or relatable.

When misinforma­tion comes from a source that feels like a knowledgea­ble friend-of-afriend, perhaps someone who recently introduced you to a new “vegan and cruelty-free” mascara or a Bpa-free water bottle, it can seem like useful new intel.

Facebook, Youtube and Twitter have all enacted stricter rules against coronaviru­s misinforma­tion over the course of the pandemic. Posting outright lies about vaccines — that they kill people, for instance — is against the rules on all three platforms. But much of the misinforma­tion is spread by those who say they are simply asking questions, something the platforms have been hesitant to police.

Online wellness communitie­s are especially open to such questionin­g, as members often wind up there in the first place because their health issues have been dismissed by the medical system.

“What binds them is this concern and this doubt,” said Neil Johnson, the George Washington University study’s lead author.

Johnson’s study found that Facebook was able to identify and shut down dedicated covid19 misinforma­tion groups containing millions of members, but posts from those groups had already been shared into other wellness groups that were almost completely unmoderate­d.

Facebook spokesman Aaron Simpson said the company will take down an entire group if its administra­tors consistent­ly allow content that breaks rules against covid-19 misinforma­tion. He added that the company has taken down over 18 million pieces of covid-19 misinforma­tion and shown billions of its users official informatio­n on the disease and reminders to get vaccinated, through its own tools.

Twitter has taken down 43,000 pieces of covid-19 misinforma­tion and suspended over 1,500 accounts, said spokesman Trenton Kennedy, and is committed to “elevating credible, reliable health informatio­n.” YouTube has removed more than 1 million videos containing “dangerous coronaviru­s informatio­n” since February 2020, according to an Aug. 25 blog post from Chief Product Officer Neal Mohan.

Many influencer­s still evade scrutiny. Ben Raue is a vegan fitness coach who posts to his 142,000 followers on Instagram as “Plant Based Ben.” Raue used to mostly post photos of tasty-looking vegan meals, clips of his gravity-defying, shirtless outdoor workouts and before-and-after transforma­tion diptychs of himself and his clients. That is, until this summer, when he began posting about pharmaceut­ical companies’ sinister motives and injustice toward the unvaccinat­ed.

“Why aren’t they allowing those with n@tural herd 1mmunity to have the same rights as those who received the non-fd@ approved ‘ meds’?” he wrote in one caption from early June.

Another post, shared in July, is simply a screenshot of one of Raue’s tweets, which reads, “‘ Trust Science’ when science comes from a trustworth­y source. Question science when there are conflicts of interest, manipulate­d data, rushed trials, silenced doctors, and suppressed safe alternativ­es. Blind trust isn’t science. Investigat­ing and questionin­g is science.” In an email, Raue declined to comment.

Those encouraged by influencer­s also tend to find one another online, sometimes by being followers of the same accounts.

For much of her adult life, 47-year-old Ginger Sweeney has been wary of mandatory vaccinatio­ns. The fourth of her six children had an adverse reaction to one at about 1 year old. Sweeney skipped the rest of his shot appointmen­ts and refused all vaccines for her two youngest children.

So when the coronaviru­s vaccine became available to the public, the yoga instructor and adjunct media-studies instructor at SUNY Canton already knew she wasn’t interested; the rapid pace at which the vaccine had been developed, too, gave her pause.

Sweeney often reposts antivaccin­e content from social media influencer­s, such as a selfdescri­bed “mental freedom coach” with nearly 22,000 Instagram followers and a microinflu­encer who advocates for “lowtox living & wellness” as well as “medical freedom.” “You can see, like, so many news stories that you don’t hear about in this country, and millions of people gathering together to fight tyranny,” Sweeney said. “It’s an amazing community.”

Mary Lai has a number of the same beliefs as Sweeney — but has become alarmed at the vaccine hesitancy espoused by influencer­s she’s encountere­d in her wellness circles. The 40-year-old in Hillsboro, Ore., was taught from an early age to always avoid free radicals and to drink bitterleaf tea to lower her blood sugar. Lai, now a freelancer in the animation industry and the mother of a toddler, still tries to maintain a “nontoxic lifestyle” — she rarely takes any medicine stronger than ibuprofen, for instance.

At first, Lai was concerned about long-term side effects from the vaccine and planned to wait a year to get it. “But that was before I knew anything about how the technology behind the vaccines worked,” she wrote in an email to The Washington Post. Lai began researchin­g and ultimately got both doses of the Pfizer vaccine in late spring. When her period was late (a commonly reported side effect), she went in search of answers, clicked a link she found in a Bay Area moms group and stumbled across another health group she described as “a crazy snake den” of misinforma­tion.

“Women were afraid of vaccinated people ‘shedding’ toxin onto their kids,” Lai wrote. ( There is no evidence vaccines contain toxins in amounts harmful to humans.) One member even said she’d told her parents not to hold their grandkids.

“The misinforma­tion on that group was mind-boggling,” she added. “None of it was based in science.”

The Facebook group, Lai said, has since disappeare­d.

There may be measures that could effectivel­y curb the spread of misinforma­tion in these kinds of circles. Pop star Olivia Rodrigo is one of around 50 social media influencer­s and celebritie­s that are part of a White House effort to flood the Internet with more pro-vaccine content. Facebook has tried to connect its users to vaccinatio­n sites, and Youtube is working with hospital groups to create new videos that will feature at the top of search results for common health-care questions. Twitter recently partnered with Reuters and the Associated Press to add credible informatio­n to the platform during breaking news events.

But the companies’ recommenda­tion algorithms also promote the most engaging content, which means controvers­ial posts about the virus and vaccines often gain traction. That creates a situation in which the company’s own systems are sometimes promoting content that breaks its rules.

Even if the companies banned entire wellness groups where vaccine misinforma­tion was present, it wouldn’t necessaril­y cut down on misinforma­tion, GWU’S Johnson said.

“Just going in and snipping connection­s is a very dangerous thing to do,” he said, because it often has the effect of pushing wellness communitie­s even closer to outright anti-vaccine influencer­s. Indeed, the threat of being banned or censored often creates a shared secret-mission kind of dynamic between vaccine skeptics within online wellness communitie­s. When Lai came across the Facebook moms group, for instance, many of the posts referred to getting the vaccine as “dancing with Maxine” to evade Facebook’s automated scanners.

There are also thriving communitie­s online that buck the trend of angry, divisive discussion. Vaccine Talk, a Facebook group with more than 66,000 members, is open to pro- and anti-vaccine members but has strict rules requiring people to post links to peer-reviewed studies and reputable news articles whenever making a claim.

But once someone has begun believing in anti-vaccine messages, it can be hard to turn them around, Johnson said. In the George Washington University study, pro-vaccine health groups did not show a lot of crossover with wellness communitie­s. “They don’t really make many inroads,” Johnson said.

Sweeney puts more stock in the influencer­s and friends she follows than in official sources. She mistrusts both the top government infectious-disease expert Anthony S. Fauci (who she believes has “patents on all of these drugs” being used to treat and prevent covid; he does not) and the “flip-flopping” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sweeney spoke to The Washington Post before the Pfizer vaccine received full approval by the Food and Drug Administra­tion. When asked whether that authorizat­ion would make a difference in her calculatio­n, Sweeney said she still wouldn’t take the shot.

“Oh, absolutely not,” she said. “My friends and I would definitely not.”

 ?? WOODY HARRINGTON FOR THE WASHINGTON POST ??
WOODY HARRINGTON FOR THE WASHINGTON POST

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