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Wed 22 September 2021

New data reveals how anti-vaccination information produced by Children’s Health Defense is receiving more Twitter shares than the World Health Organisation and Centers for Disease Control combined

Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine website is shared more on Twitter than the websites of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) combined, according to data from Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media. 

The dataset, which compiles English-language tweets about vaccines from US Twitter users, shows that childrenshealthdefense.org – the website for anti-vaccine group Children’s Health Defense (CHD) – has consistently ranked among the most-shared websites, outpacing health organisations such as CDC and the WHO, as well as news outlets such as the Associated Press, USA Today, and NPR. Children’s Health Defense was founded by Kennedy in 2016.

Chart comparing shares of the anti-vaccine website childrenshealthdefense.org as a percentage of all vaccine-related tweets to shares of the CDC and WHO websites. (Chart created with Indiana University’s CoVaxxy tool)

Articles from CHD’s website rack up anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 shares on Twitter in an average week. In comparison, the CDC rarely breaks 8,000 and the WHO typically stays under 3,000. 

At times, childrenshealthdefense.org has been among the top three most-shared websites among vaccine-related tweets. 

On the week of 7 July, for example, the CHD’s website was shared more than 17,000 times. Only two sources, The New York Times and the Guardian, ranked higher. The CDC’s website was shared 4,000 times that same week, and WHO’s website was shared 1,500 times.

Chart showing the most-shared sources in vaccine-related tweets for the week of 7 July 2021. Photo: Indiana University Observatory

A Pattern of Misinformation

CHD, which was formerly known as the World Mercury Project, has seized on the COVID-19 pandemic to advance its anti-vaccine agenda. The group deceptively hypes the risk of vaccine side-effects and adverse reactions, downplays the severity of the virus, and has accused the US Government of supporting research on vaccines in order to increase profit for the pharmaceutical industry. 

Other claims made by CHD include alleging that vaccine mandates designed to compel government employees to get vaccinated or undergo regular COVID-19 testing are in violation of the Nuremberg Code.

This comes as the Delta variant of COVID-19 threatens to undo much of the progress made towards ending the pandemic. 

The Centre for Countering Digital Hate has identified CHD as one of the leaders of the anti-vaccination movement online.

The US last week reported the highest number of new Coronavirus cases in the world. More than 500,000 Americans are infected with the virus. On 27 July, the UK reported its highest number of deaths and people in the hospital since March, though the number of new infections is falling.  

Experts say that the high proportion of unvaccinated people in the US is allowing the virus to continue mutating as it spreads, leading to more contagious variants such as Delta, which currently accounts for more than 80% of all cases in the country. 

But, with vaccine misinformation being pushed out by CHD and other anti-vaccine groups, even the threat of a new, more severe strain of COVID-19 isn’t enough to motivate some people to get vaccinated.

Research suggests that vaccine misinformation and disinformation can have a significant impact on attitudes about vaccines, as well as vaccination rates. 

A 2020 study published in BMJ Public Health found that foreign disinformation about vaccines is significantly associated with reduced vaccination rates in countries across the world. 

Additionally, a pre-print study published this year, using the Indiana University database referenced in this article, found a significant negative relationship between levels of online misinformation shared on Twitter and vaccine uptake – such that higher levels of misinformation were associated with lower levels of vaccine uptake across the US.

Another study, published in February in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, found that recent exposure to vaccine misinformation was associated with a decline in intent to get vaccinated among people in both the US and UK. 

This relationship was particularly strong when people were exposed to “scientific-sounding” misinformation – the type produced by CHD.

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