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Majority of anti-vaxx ads on Facebook funded by just 2 groups – including one led by Robert Kennedy

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The majority of ads spreading misinformation about vaccines on Facebook are funded by just two anti-vaxx groups, a new study reveals.

Researchers found that 54 percent of anti-vaccine ads were bought by The World Mercury Project, spearheaded by Robert F Kennedy Jr, and Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, led by David Cook.

Both men are staunch anti-vaxxers who have called inoculations ‘dangerous’ and have falsely claimed that vaccines lead to several childhood illnesses.

The team, led by the University of Maryland, hinted that the findings are evidence that anti-vaccine ads could threaten to reverse progress made in combating vaccine-preventable diseases. 

A new study has found that 54% of anti-vaxx ads on Facebook were funded by Stop Mandatory Vaccinations, and The World Mercury Project, which is spear-headed by Robert F Kennedy Jr. Pictured: Kennedy Jr speaks onstage in January 2019

Over the last few years, misinformation about immunizations have led parents to delay vaccinating their children or not doing it altogether. 

In fact, health experts have blamed this year’s outbreak of measles, the worst of the disease since 1992, on low vaccination rates.    

And ‘vaccine hesitancy’ has been named one of the top threats to global health in 2019 by the World Health Organization.

For the new study, published in the journal Vaccine, the team searched Facebook’s Ad Archive two separate times: on December 13, 2018 and on February 22, 2019. 

Both dates were before Facebook’s announcement in March 2019 that it was updating its advertising policies to limit the spread of misinformation.

Researchers gained access to 505 ads and split them into three groups: pro-vaccine, anti-vaccine and not applicable. 

Of those ads, 163 were pro-vaccine advertisements and 145 were anti-vaccine.

The team found that the pro-vaccine ads had a much more diverse group of buyers, 83 in total.

Meanwhile, five groups were the buyers of 75 percent of anti-vaccine ads. More than half – 54 percent – were bought by the organizations chaired by Kennedy Jr and Cook.

Recently, Cook was banned from GoFundMe after using the crowd-funding platform to raise money for anti-vaxx Facebook ads and to line his own pockets.

Kennedy Jr, the son of late Attorney General Robert F Kennedy and nephew of late President John F Kennedy, is a prominent anti-vaccine activist and has advocated that parents should choose whether or not they want their children immunized. 

In May, his brother, sister and niece wrote an op-ed in which they slammed his views on vaccines, calling them ‘tragically wrong’ and accusing him of spreading ‘dangerous misinformation’.

‘The average person might think that this anti-vaccine movement is a grassroots effort led by parents,’ said first author Amelia Jamison, a faculty research assistant in the Maryland Center for Health Equity.

‘But what we see on Facebook is that there are a handful of well-connected, powerful people who are responsible for the majority of advertisements. These buyers are more organized than people think.’ 

Pro-vaccine ads focused on getting people immunized against certain diseases including Walmart advertising its flu vaccine clinic or the Gates Foundation’s campaign to eradicate polio.

However, the anti-vaccine ads often came with links to products that consumers could buy such as ‘natural’ remedies. 

Additionally, the anti-vaxx ads were often seen by more people, anywhere between 5,000 and 50,000, and could cost almost $500 an ad.  

For future research, the team plans to examine how anti-vaccine ads are getting around on Facebook and what the company is doing to combat the spread of misinformation.

‘While everyone knows that Facebook can be used to spread misinformation, few people realize the control that advertisers have to target their message,’ said Dr Mark Dredze, an associate professor of computer science at Johns Hopkins. 

‘For a few thousand dollars, a small number of anti-vaccine groups can micro-target their message, exploiting vulnerabilities in the health of the public.’ 


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