They have thousands or tens of thousands of followers and friends. They publish grainy livestreams and sleek videos questioning the safety of Covid-19 vaccines and the effectiveness of face masks and lockdowns. They are the small-numbers, long-tail peddlers of health disinformation. They are the coronavirus misinformation microinfluencers – and they are Facebook’s next big problem.
Microinfluencers are, to a degree, a problem of Facebook’s own making. They were born out of a crackdown on conspiracy-focused, pseudoscientific and QAnon-adjacent pages and groups at the end of 2020. That crackdown targeted the big guns but largely ignored the individuals within those communities who had garnered sizeable followings. When the crackdown came, bereft fans flocked from the big pages to the microinfluencers.
The way Facebook is designed helped these microinfluencers grow and spread their message. They quickly provided a constant stream of content, and raked in small but devoted crowds of supporters courtesy of the platform’s “follow” function – which allows users to see a profile’s public posts without becoming one of their friends, the number of which is limited to 5,000. “The ban of pages and groups that formed community hubs has come late enough that active users from those groups have turned their personal pages into decentralised hubs,” explains Joe Ondrak, a senior researcher at anti-misinformation firm Logically, which first raised the alarm about the microinfluencer trend in a December 2020 report.
The kind of posts published by these profiles is more or less what you would expect: baseless claims that vaccines will inevitably give you horrific side effects, bogus allegations that the pandemic is a pantomime orchestrated by governments and multinationals, false insinuations against Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates or US chief medical advisor Anthony Fauci.
Microinfluencers often interview each other, and repost each other’s content, effectively knitting a self-validating network of dubious claims. Usually each microinfluencer fits – naturally or deliberately – a certain stock character: there are former healthcare workers who play the part of the whistleblowers-cum-experts; there are “reporters”, religiously filming every single anti-lockdown or anti-vaccine protest, and reposting videos of similar events from other countries; and there are the courtroom warriors, who call on people to carry out citizen’s arrests on Matt Hancock or the whole UK government – a fantasy strongly reminiscent of QAnon’s shattered prophecies.
What makes microinfluencers different, and potentially more insidious, is that it is pretty hard to gauge their impact. “This has become a pseudo-Twitter network of posting, cross-posting and following that has formed ‘under the radar’ of analytics software,” Ondrak explains. The conventional tools used by disinformation researchers – like Ondrak himself – are effective at scouring pages and groups for keywords or specific pieces of content, but what goes on on private profiles is impossible to find that way – and therefore, harder to counter. “Mapping out and monitoring this network of users is extremely time and labour intensive. There is no ‘at a glance’ way to see their influence, but their posts often receive shares in the hundreds and sometimes thousands, boosting the spread of disinformation from personal profile to personal profile.”
There are proxies, though. Some microinfluencer posts will be shared widely enough to make it into the surviving vaccine-sceptical or vaccine-hesitant public groups. Using CrowdTangle, an insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, WIRED found 26 private profiles of microinfluencers – mostly British, but also American and Australian – that kept popping up in English-speaking vaccine-focused groups and pages.
Between November 1 and January 17, their posts were shared in 586 groups and 112 pages: some of those groups and pages were unabashedly about vaccines and alternative medicine; others focused on themes including wellness and mysticism, religion, Bernie Sanders, Vladimir Putin, Jeremy Corbyn, comedian Jimmy Dore, and local news and gossip. In the same period, posts by the top three microinfluencers – all with between 15,000 and 20,000 followers – garnered about 350,000 interactions (shares, comments, and reactions to their posts) altogether.
Most of the shared posts were videos – and here the numbers tell a more worrisome story. Since November, videos published by WIRED’s sample of microinfluencers received 8.7 million views. One very successful video – a 28-minute-long cavalcade of self-styled healthcare professionals reciting vaccine disinformation – published in December on the page of a microinfluencer with 14,000 followers, was viewed 3.2 million times.
The video was apparently taken down – it is unclear whether by the microinfluencer herself or by Facebook moderators – last week, but by that time it had been up for over a month. Back in December 2020 Facebook promised that it would act more aggressively to stomp out vaccine disinformation – but its promise doesn’t appear to have been fully kept. Some posts from microinfluencers have been branded with a fact-checking label pointing out inaccuracies or falsehoods – a label that the microinfluencers and their followers tend to regard as a medal of honour – but dozens of videos in which similar claims are repeated are still live.
“Our AI and 35,000 strong team proactively find and remove harmful content across every part of Facebook,” a Facebook spokesperson says. The company, however, wants to make sure that speaking about vaccines on its platform is still possible, which is why it resorts to removal just in extreme cases. Facebook did not respond to a direct question about the difficulty of moderating personal profiles as opposed to pages or groups.
Some microinfluencers appear to have already had enough of Facebook, especially after the platform’s actions in the wake of the Capitol insurrection on January 6. One of the UK’s most popular microinfluencers recently announced that he would be moving to alternative social network MeWe; another started re-uploading her most popular posts on alternative video-hosting services. Other microinfluencers, following the evolution of QAnon in the US, are toning down the vaccine rhetoric and mass-arrest predictions, and are embracing the new conspiracy theory – the “sovereign citizen movement.”
There’s even the odd bit of irony, like the microinfluencer who – after months of railing against vaccines and the New World Order – this week devoted a video to fending off accusations of being an Illuminati, and explaining how a strangely shaped bush in one of her past videos was not a freemasonry symbol.
Spread across Facebook and fiendishly difficult to track and monitor, microinfluencers are unlikely to fade away – especially while they still have such an engaged and loyal following. And, over time, the messages they share are likely to get more extreme. ”While pages and groups were often concerned with one or two issues, microinfluencers are people with their own beliefs and interests,” says Ondrak. “This means that one microinfluencer could spread content that flits from antivaxx, to Covid-denialism, to QAnon-lore and more esoteric beliefs as their own personal journey down the rabbit hole intensifies.”
Gian Volpicelli is a senior editor at WIRED. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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