Facebook “still too slow to act on groups benefiting from Covid conspiracy theories” | Facebook

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Covid conspiracy theorists are looking to take advantage of the millions of followers they’ve racked up on Instagram during the pandemic by marketing them health supplements, wellness classes and juicers.

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has identified more than 100 Covid conspiracy accounts promoting products to an audience of nearly 6 million people on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.

Facebook insists it is taking more action against health misinformation, but conspiracy channels on the platform are growing in popularity nonetheless. In the first three months of this year, the 100 accounts have gained almost a million subscribers between them. This potentially puts the US tech giant in violation of its pledge to the UK government last November that it would work to prevent users from profiting from online disinformation about the coronavirus vaccine.

The accounts tracked included a group of Instagrammers called Health Freedom for Humanity (HFFH). The group’s executive director and co-founder is Alec Zeck, a 28-year-old US Army captain and Olympic-level handball player. Zeck’s 85,000-follower Instagram page hosts a slew of misleading claims, including that the Covid-19 virus has never been isolated. His account promotes HFFH, but also points to a page on linktr.ee, a startup widely used by Instagrammers to direct users to other resources, sponsors and products for sale.

On his linktr.ee page, Zeck promotes a “mind / body / spirit” site selling merchandise and directs users to a website for Coseva’s “heavy metal detox”, selling for $ 95 a spray which claims to cleanse the body and brain metals. The page names a “sponsor” – Kylee Zeck, Alec’s wife – who takes a share of the sales.

Zeck said, “Our organization includes people from all walks of life, united in our belief that mandatory medical procedures of any kind, medical coercion or restrictions on health choice violate basic human rights.

The vice president of HFFH is Tommy John, a chiropractor who claims the coronavirus does not exist, a line he maintained even after his father, a retired baseball star also called Tommy, was hospitalized with Covid. In addition to promoting HFFH through his Instagram account, John also links to a T-shirt selling site with slogans such as, “This is not a pandemic. It’s worse. “

One of the HFFH board members is Joseph Yi MD, a “holistic psychiatrist” who runs a CBD oil business and is one of four doctors behind a supplement salesman called Beyond Recovery. There are links to the two companies on his Instagram page, where he described the coronavirus pandemic as a “plandemic” and the “shiRONA masquerade”. Yi said he believed the masks were not effective and the testing for Covid-19 was “a scam.”

HFFH did not respond to requests for comment.

Alec Zeck
Alec Zeck’s page hosts misleading claims. Photography: YouTube

One of the most common ways to make money on Instagram is through affiliate programs, which reduce sales in exchange for product referrals. More than a dozen accounts studied promoted heavy metal detox sprays. Many anti-vaccine groups and influencers claim, mistakenly, that 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 also misleading these same people about the public health emergency unfolding around them.

While neither Instagram nor Facebook directly benefits from these lucrative schemes, their business model is based on maintaining public engagement. Facebook, Instagram and other social media companies, such as YouTube, have regularly been criticized for increasing their engagement by drawing users to extremist or conspiratorial content and views.

Lord Puttnam, who heads the Lords’ Committee on Democracy and Digital Technology, accused Facebook and others of doing the absolute minimum to counter this. “What you get from them is Elastoplast and bandages, because the problem is the fundamental business model,” he said. “The problem is not what they can fix. In fact, to correct things, they have to change their business model. If they change their business model, they will be less profitable. “

Nina Jankowicz, a disinformation researcher at the U.S. thinktank Wilson Center, said Facebook couldn’t shirk responsibility for monetization and disinformation even if it wasn’t done directly through Instagram. “They provide the means by which this is amplified,” she said. “Instagram will say, ‘Well, it’s a linktr.ee moderation platform’, but they provide the tool by which people amplify those links. “

Facebook said, “We are taking strong action to remove misinformation about Covid-19, including false information about approved vaccines.” After the Bureau contacted Facebook, a number of accounts were deleted, including those belonging to Health Freedom for Humanity and Zeck.

Linktr.ee has suspended the accounts identified by the investigation. Company co-founder Alex said, “We are committed to… improving our systems and processes so that we can identify and detect misinformation before it reaches a large audience. We have never been in the business and never intended to profit from the dissemination of information deliberately intended to deceive or harm. “

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