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 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 one from April, she writes that “many of you have heard about the large number of poke-free 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 COVID pandemic. For years, the anti-vaccine 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 anti-vaxxers, and many actively promote vaccines and support medical science.
But tight links have developed between groups focused on anti-vaccine 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 and 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 anti-vaccine 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 self-portraits 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, Elizabeth 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 “micro-influencers” - who are believed within the marketing industry to have an especially outsized 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-a-friend, 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, George Washington University study’s lead author.
Johnson’s study found that Facebook was able to identify and shut down dedicated COVID-19 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 spokesperson Aaron Simpson said the company will take down an entire group if its administrators consistently allow content that breaks its 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 spokesperson Trenton Kennedy, and is committed to “elevating credible, reliable health information.” YouTube has removed over 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 each other 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 one 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 anti-vaccine content from influential social-media influencers, such as a self-described “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,” said Sweeney. “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 drink bitter-leaf 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 where 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, 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 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 FDA. 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.”