The conspiracy theorists read want to make money on the millions of followers they built on Instagram during the pandemic with health marketing supplements, wellness courses and juicers.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has identified more than 100 Covid conspiracies promoting products to an audience of nearly 6 million people on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
Facebook insists on taking more and more action on health misinformation, but the conspiracy channels on the platform are still growing in popularity. In the first three months of this year, 100 accounts gained nearly a million followers. This potentially puts the American technology giant in violation of its obligation to the government of the United Kingdom last November to work on stopping users who earn from misinformation about coronavirus vaccines online.
The tracked accounts include a group of Instagrammers called Health Freedom for Humanity (HFFH). The executive director and co-founder of the group is Alec Zeck, a 28-year-old who serves as a U.S. Army captain and an Olympic-level handball player. Zeck’s 85,000 followers on Instagram have a number of misleading claims, including that the Covid-19 virus was never isolated. His account is promoted by HFFH, but also points to a page on linktr.ee, a startup that Instagrammers use extensively to direct users to other resources, sponsors, and products for sale.
On his linktr.ee page, Zeck promotes a mind / body / spirit website that sells goods and directs users to Cose’s “heavy metal detoxification” website, selling 95 bottles of spray that claims to cleanse the body and brain of heavy metals. The site names a “sponsor” – Kylee Zeck, Alec’s wife – who is cutting sales.
Zeck said: “Our organization is made up of people from all walks of life united in our belief that prescribed medical procedures of any kind, medical coercion or restrictions on health choices violate basic human rights.”
HFFH’s vice president is Tommy John, a chiropractor who claims the coronavirus doesn’t exist, a line he held even after his father, a retired baseball star named Tommy, was hospitalized with Covid. In addition to promoting HFFH through his Instagram account, John also leads to a website that sells T-shirts with slogans like, “This is not a pandemic. It’s even worse. ”
One of the board members of HFFH is Joseph Yi MD, a “holistic psychiatrist” who runs the CBD oil company and is one of four doctors behind the supplement vendor called Beyond Recovery. On his Instagram page, there are links to both companies, where he described the coronavirus pandemic as a “plandemic” and a “charade of shiraNa”. Yi said he believes the masks are not effective and that the tests for Covid-19 are a “scam.”
HFFH did not respond to requests for comment.
One of the most common ways to make money on Instagram is through affiliate programs that provide reduced sales in return for product recommendations. More than a dozen researched accounts have promoted sprays for detoxifying heavy metals. Many anti-vaccine groups and influencers claim, falsely, that the amounts of traces of heavy metals such as aluminum used in some vaccines cause health problems.
Other accounts promote supplements and devices that promise to improve well-being, while deceiving those same people about the extraordinary public health that is happening around them.
Although neither Instagram nor Facebook profit directly from these earnings schemes, their business model relies on engaging audiences. Facebook, Instagram, and other companies on social media, such as YouTube, are regularly criticized for increasing engagement by attracting users toward extremist or conspiratorial content and views.
Lord Puttnam, who heads the Lord’s Committee on Democracy and Digital Technology, has accused Facebook and others of doing the absolute minimum to oppose it. “What you get from them is Elastoplast and bandages because the problem is the underlying business model,” he said. “The problem is not that they can fix it. In fact, in order to fix it, they need to change their business model. If they change their business model, they will be less profitable. “
Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation researcher at the American thin tank Wilson Center, said that Facebook cannot be released from responsibility for monetization and misinformation even if it is not done directly via Instagram. “They provide the means to amplify it,” she said. “Instagram will say, ‘Well, this is the linktr.ee editorial platform,’ but they provide a tool through which people reinforce these connections.”
Facebook said: “We are taking aggressive steps to remove Covid-19 misinformation, including false information about approved vaccines.” After the Bureau contacted Facebook, a number of accounts were removed, including those belonging to Health Freedom for Humanity and Zeck.
Linktr.ee has suspended the accounts established by the investigation. The company’s co-founder, Alex, said: “We are committed … to improving our systems and processes so we can identify and capture misinformation before it reaches a large audience. We have never dealt with it or intended to profit from the dissemination of information intentionally intended to deceive or cause harm. “