Killer Disinformation: How Anti-Vaccine Propaganda Hijacked American Political Discourse

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Biden administration has given new life to a national discussion about the dangers of social media-induced misinformation following its request that Facebook censor Covid-19 anti-vaccination propaganda. Biden lamented the proliferation of anti-vaxxer content, declaring: “They’re killing people. Look, the only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated, and that – and they’re killing people.” Biden elaborated upon his comment, spotlighting a “disinformation dozen” on social media, which recent research shows are responsible for two-thirds of the lies being disseminated about Covid-19 vaccines, and up to three-quarters of Facebook’s anti-vaccine content. This disinformation dozen includes entrepreneurs such as Ty and Charlene Bollinger and Joseph Mercola, anti-vaccine activists such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Kevin Jenkins, and physicians such as Rashid Buttar, Christiane Northrup, and Sherri Tenpenny, among others.

Republican officials and their supporters in rightwing media have bitterly attacked the Biden administration for pressuring social media to crack down on this disinformation. Senator Marsha Blackburn condemned as “shocking” Biden’s effort “to work with Big Tech companies to censor Americans’ free speech,” depicting it as “a violation of the First Amendment,” although her attack would surely amuse Constitutional scholars, since users of social media platforms do not benefit from First Amendment free speech rights, which are applied against government, not private corporations. Former Trump administration advisor Stephen Miller appeared on Fox News’s Hannity to deride the Biden administration and “creeping authoritarianism from the left,” which he claimed “has now reached a full gallop” after the President’s attempts to target vaccine disinformation on social media.

For those who have been following the numbers, national polling data reveal that the United States is facing an epidemic of ignorance when it comes to mass opposition to vaccination, and this willful ignorance is killing people in mass. As of early August, an estimated 39 percent of adult Americans were not yet fully vaccinated. Of that group, 80 percent say they probably (35 percent) or definitely (45 percent) will not get vaccinated in the future. And as reporting by the summer of 2021 made abundantly clear, virtually all of the patients admitted to hospitals requiring urgent care, and all the deaths due to Covid-19 were among the unvaccinated.

What is the source of the public’s embrace of anti-vaccine misinformation, and is it possible to combat it? To answer these questions, I undertook a statistical analysis of the best national data available on the subject – the multi-month Axios-Ipsos polling covering the period from the spring through early summer of 2021. I measured the best statistical predictors of opposition to vaccination among the general public, looking specifically at Americans who said they had not yet been vaccinated in the April, May, and June surveys, compared to those who had received at least one or both shots of one of the Covid-19 vaccines. I looked at various factors to measure statistically whether each was associated with being vaccinated or unvaccinated, including respondents’ gender, race (white, Hispanic, black), income, political party, age, education, and media consumption.

For media consumption, I looked specifically at individuals who said they relied on one of the following as their “main source of news”: social media, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, the New York Times, and broadcast news (NBC, CBS, and ABC). Using “regression” analysis, I measure whether each of these factors is a statistical predictor of an individual’s unwillingness to get vaccinated, after statistically accounting, or “controlling” for each of the other factors I’ve listed.

First, it’s worth summarizing some basic findings. An overarching profile emerges – looking at the most recent polling data for June – of which factors are significantly associated with being unvaccinated. That profile includes individuals who are Republican, black, younger, less educated, and lower income. These statistics don’t suggest that these groups are monolithic in terms of opposing vaccination, but simply that members of each demographic group are less likely to be vaccinated relative to the rest of the public.

Importantly, Fox News viewership and social media consumption are not associated with being unvaccinated, after accounting for all the other factors examined here. On the other hand, relying on broadcast network news outlets and MSNBC for one’s news are both associated with being more likely to be vaccinated, even after controlling for respondents’ partisanship and other factors. This means that even if more Democrats are watching these outlets, that alone cannot account for viewers of these networks being more likely to get vaccinated. More likely, it is that there is a positive information effect of these mainstream outlets when it comes to promoting vaccination – and that this has impacted viewers and made them more likely to seek out vaccination. The differences are hardly insignificantly, as only 11 percent of MSNBC viewers reported being unvaccinated in June, compared to 30 percent of non-MSNBC viewers, and with only 17 percent of network news viewers being unvaccinated, compared to 33 percent of non-network news viewers.

Fox News has been less of a lightning rod when it comes to encouraging vaccination refusals than critics might expect. The network’s top pundits have hemmed and hawed on the vaccination front. Sean Hannity has recently come out in favor of vaccination, while Tucker Carlson has vacillated between claiming not to be against vaccines, and routinely raising questions about their safety – in the process prompting ridicule from Democratic critics. As a result of the networks’ conflicted messaging, its audience is only moderately, but not significantly (statistically speaking) more likely to be associated with anti-vaxxer politics. Thirty-eight percent of Fox News viewers said they were unvaccinated in June, compared to 28 percent of those not relying on the network for their news.

Most troubling regarding the Biden administration’s warnings about social media is one particular group of Americans – Republicans who rely primarily on social media for their news. This group – by a very large margin – has increasingly fallen victim to the propaganda being purveyed by the “disinformation dozen” and other manipulators on social media platforms. The problem has grown particularly severe in a relatively short period of time. As my analysis of the Axios-Ipsos polling shows, self-identified Republicans who relied primarily on social media for their news were not significantly more likely to report being unvaccinated compared to the rest of the public in April or May of this year. But by June, a significant difference was observed between this group and the rest of the public. It was during this period, from the spring to early summer, that the disinformation dozen and other unsavory social media actors were working to poison social media discourse and to undermine public confidence in vaccination. As my analysis shows, in June, more than half (52 percent) of Republicans relying on social media for their news reported being unvaccinated, compared to 29 percent of all the other respondents included in the poll – a difference of 23 percentage points. And this group was significantly more likely to be unvaccinated by June, after controlling for other factors such as respondents’ gender, age, education, race, and income.

Americans should be careful not to pin the problem of anti-vaxxer politics squarely on social media. It is primarily one group – Republicans – who are falling into this disinformation online. And the rejection of vaccines does not principally stem from social media. Rather, the anti-vaxxer movement has been building in the U.S. and abroad for decades – long predating the rise of the “disinformation dozen.” It draws its power from a variety of different groups, as my larger statistical analysis showed – particularly among the Republican right, which has long relied on conspiratorial and anti-science views to undermine public confidence in medicine and public health measures designed to combat the threat of dangerous diseases.

Recognizing the deeper partisan pathologies driving antivaxxer politics, however, brings us back to the social media problem. Social media, by enabling Republican users to curate their own unique “echo chambers,” have allowed them to avoid information that contradicts their prior beliefs. These platforms allow Republicans to construct dangerous fantasy worlds that reinforce and strengthen their preexisting opposition to vaccination. That seems beyond a doubt, considering the increased opposition to vaccination among Republican social media users.

Rhetoric about “creeping authoritarianism” via the cracking down on social media disinformation, while red meat to the Republican base, misses the larger point that such propaganda has literally become toxic to the public, as Americans refuse vaccination in large numbers, thereby making herd immunity impossible, increasing the likelihood that Covid-19 and its variants will continue to spread and tear through the population for years to come.

We are now facing a public health crisis of unprecedented proportions, with reactionaries invoking the freedom to spread disinformation without penalty and the freedom to refuse vaccination, which they believe supersede collective rights to combat a life-threatening pandemic that has claimed the lives of more than 600,000 Americans and more than 4 million people worldwide. And there is no end in sight to their disinformation, short of serious efforts to combat the anti-vaccination propaganda campaigns that are raging on social media.

Concerns with censorship and its potential negative side effects are understandable when the social media outlets in question have shown that they always seem to be one step behind the spreaders of disinformation. It was, after all, just a year ago that Americans were being told by Facebook and Twitter that they were introducing measures that would effectively crack down on Covid-19 disinformation on social media. And yet, here the nation is, lamenting Covid propaganda again, in the face of the rise of the disinformation dozen and an ascending anti-vaxxer movement. The stupendous failure of these venues to self-regulate makes it clear that the “free market” approach to addressing the harmful effects of social media is not working, and that a new approach is needed.

The path forward lies in pioneering a system of non-profit taxpayer-funded journalism, which will serve as a form of civic education to combat mass disinformation and misinformation. In an era when for-profit journalism has fallen into crisis, newspapers are seeing a steady and constant decline in their audiences. Americans are increasingly turning to the sewer of social media to “get their news,” and the need for quality journalism is growing by the day. A non-profit system of journalism should involve active government regulation in the form of a requirement that social media venues contribute to funding non-profit journalism, and that they regularly incorporate that reporting into their platforms, so that consumers of their products are routinely confronted with quality reporting that challenges the disinformation to which they are being exposed. This sort of civic education will be necessary moving forward to confront the misinformation society that is now pervasive on social media, and which has enabled the rise of the anti-vaxxer movement and other forms of online propaganda.

Anthony DiMaggio is Associate Professor of Political Science at Lehigh University. He is the author of Rising Fascism in America: It Can Happen Here (Routledge, 2022), in addition to Rebellion in America (Routledge, 2020), and Unequal America (Routledge, 2021). He can be reached at: A digital copy of Rebellion in America can be read for free here.