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The Trump administration bailed out prominent anti-vaccine groups during a pandemic

Five groups received more than $850,000 in PPP loans to help small businesses through the pandemic

A supporter of President Trump holds an anti-vaccine sign while protesting in Washington on Jan. 5. The Small Business Administration gave Paycheck Protection Program loans to five groups known to spread misinformation regarding the coronavirus. (Erin Scott/Bloomberg News)

Five prominent anti-vaccine organizations that have been known to spread misleading information about the coronavirus received more than $850,000 in loans from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, raising questions about why the government is giving money to groups actively opposing its agenda and seeking to undermine public health during a critical period.

The groups that received the loans are the National Vaccine Information Center, Mercola Health Resources, the Informed Consent Action Network, the Children’s Health Defense and the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, an advocacy group based in the United Kingdom that fights misinformation and conducted the research using public documents. The group relied on data released in early December by the Small Business Administration in response to a lawsuit from The Washington Post and other news organizations.

Several of the Facebook pages of these organizations have been penalized by the social network, including being prohibited from buying advertising, for pushing misinformation about the coronavirus.

Vaccines are largely considered safe and effective, and clinical trials for those made by Moderna and Pfizer did not raise serious safety concerns. But many Americans hold skeptical attitudes about vaccination, attitudes that public health experts have said are attributable in part to misinformation. Nearly 40 percent of Americans say they definitely or probably would not get a coronavirus vaccine, according to a December survey by the Pew Research Center. Certain groups, including Republicans and Black Americans, are even more skeptical, Pew found.

A major funder of the anti-vaccine movement has made millions selling natural health products

Public health officials, including World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, have called vaccine misinformation “a major threat to global health that could reverse decades of progress made in tackling preventable diseases,” and last year the organization partnered with Facebook to help counter misinformation on its platform with content from authoritative sources.

The smallest loan, $72,000, went to the Tenpenny organization, which is run by Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician and social media figure who uses online forums to promote alternative health and argue against vaccinations for children and others. A popular page run by Tenpenny was banned from Facebook in December for spreading misinformation, although she still has tens of thousands of followers on Instagram.

The largest loan, $335,000, went to Mercola, an organization affiliated with Joseph Mercola, a well-known anti-vaccine activist and businessman. The left-leaning human rights group Avaaz deemed one of Mercola’s groups on Facebook one of the leading “superspreaders” of misinformation about the coronavirus. His Facebook pages in English and Spanish together have more than 2.7 million followers.

Database: Search new PPP small business loan data from the SBA

The Children’s Health Defense Co., founded by Robert Kennedy Jr., said it does not oppose vaccines, but is dedicated to questioning their safety. The group has questioned whether the coronavirus vaccines that have received emergency approval from the Food and Drug Administration are safe, as well as whether children should be vaccinated.

The group has posted on its social media channels about the “great reset” conspiracy theory, which holds that “global elites” such as Bill Gates will use the pandemic to advance their interests and push forward a globalist or Marxist plot to destroy American sovereignty and prosperity and control the population. In a CNBC interview in October, Gates said that it was “unfortunate” that he and Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had been targeted by conspiracy theorists, and that he worried that falsehoods and misleading information about the virus were undermining the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic.

Meet the New York couple donating millions to the anti-vax movement

Organizations linked to Kennedy were responsible for the majority of Facebook advertising that was critical of vaccinations, until Facebook restricted the group’s ability to advertise in 2019 on the grounds that it spread misinformation, according to a study in the journal Vaccine. Facebook also has removed the group from its recommendation algorithms so that it is not suggested to other users as a potential interest, and has demoted it in its News Feed so that it shows up on people’s Facebook pages less frequently, and has blocked the ability of users to “like” the page.

In 2020, the group sued Facebook and its fact-checking partners over the ad ban and over debunking the group’s posts with fact-checking labels, costing the group 95 percent of its website traffic from Facebook, according to the lawsuit.

In an interview, Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and the nephew of former president John F. Kennedy, said his organization is “scrupulous about obeying the law” and questioned whether there is any law or regulation that would prevent his organization from receiving federal help.

“I’ve never heard anybody say that a loan is only available to people who don’t question the government,” Kennedy said.

‘He is wrong’: Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s family calls him out for anti-vaccine conspiracy theories

The four other PPP recipients described in this article did not respond to requests for comment.

The anti-vaccine groups are ramping up their tactics and messaging at a moment when more and more Americans are searching for accurate information about coronavirus vaccines. Encouraging the safe use of vaccines is considered a vital component of the government’s efforts to alleviate the public health crisis.

The Center for Countering Digital Hate previously exposed a conference in which anti-vaccination activists planned to seize upon people’s doubts and fears to undermine confidence in coronavirus vaccines.

“Lending money to these organizations so they can prosper is a sickening use of taxpayer money. These groups are actively working to undermine the national covid vaccination drive, which will create long-term health problems that are felt most acutely in minority communities and low-income neighborhoods,” said Imran Ahmed, chief executive of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

Although it’s unclear whether the anti-vaccine groups broke any rules, its receipt of public assistance is in many ways a consequence of the scattershot way in which the Paycheck Protection Program delivered hundreds of billions of dollars with few guardrails or preconditions.

The program was built on a controversial decision to allow businesses to self-certify their eligibility for a taxpayer-backed loan. The SBA does not hand out the loans itself; rather, it empowers a network of approved lenders to quickly process them on its behalf.

Although the SBA reserves the right to audit specific PPP loans, the government performed almost no vetting of specific loan recipients beyond a basic check to determine whether the applicant had already received a loan.

The self-certification policy allowed the government to quickly pump money into a struggling business community during the chaotic months of April and May, by cutting much of the red tape typically associated with loan approvals.

But the broad eligibility criteria and lack of vetting meant that numerous questionably deserving organizations were among the millions of loan recipients. Massive restaurant and hotel chains such as Shake Shack and Sonic benefited handsomely from loans to their affiliates. Debt collectors and high-interest lenders pocketed more than $500 million. A defense contractor with billions in sales received one.

In some cases, the government has tried to claw back money after media outlets highlighted certain recipients. In April, it asked publicly traded companies to return money, and it later accused local Planned Parenthood affiliates of improperly accessing PPP loans.

It’s unclear whether the SBA will take issue with anti-vaccination groups receiving PPP funding.

Carol Wilkerson, a spokeswoman for the SBA, declined to comment on whether the anti-vaccine organizations were legally eligible for the loans they received. She added that the agency is reviewing loan forgiveness applications to ensure compliance with the rules, and that the next round of PPP funding will include more vetting on the front end before an organization receives a loan.

She suggested that the organizations in question probably did meet the requirements; the PPP program was open to a wide range of businesses and nonprofit groups.

“In general, if PPP applicants [or] borrowers met the requirements, they got a loan,” Wilkerson said.

The SBA has previously said in informational materials that a business appearing in its PPP loan database “doesn’t mean that SBA has made an affirmative declaration that a borrower is eligible.”

Anti-vaxxers target communities battling measles

Misinformation about the coronavirus has spread widely across social media throughout the pandemic, shared by everyday people as well as anti-vaccine activists and supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Now, some of those groups have turned their attention to the vaccines, making baseless arguments, for example, that the U.S. government will force people to receive the shots, that they contain microchips and that recipients will be compelled to wear some biological marker to prove that they had the vaccine.

The social media pages of the anti-vaccine groups point to articles and research highlighting stories of adverse effects of the coronavirus vaccines, or warning against forced vaccinations and passports, or the dangers of masks. Many of the posts are factual, but use fearmongering or present a distorted picture of the dangers of vaccines.

Vaccine opponents outline online campaigns to sow distrust in coronavirus vaccine

Facebook has banned misinformation about the coronavirus and the vaccines, and has cracked down on large Facebook groups that oppose or question vaccination, including four of the five groups that received the PPP loans, spokeswoman Dani Lever said.

In recent months, the company also suspended two major groups, including the 100,000-plus-member Stop Mandatory Vaccination, as well as pages belonging to several of the movement’s leading figures. The National Vaccine Information Center is also prohibited from advertising, and the Informed Consent Action Network’s page has been labeled with a link to the World Health Organization and is not being recommended to users by the company’s algorithms, Lever said.

The company did not ban the groups for misinformation, but for what it said was spammy and abusive behavior, such as using paid troll farms in Macedonia and the Philippines to spread messages.

Despite Facebook’s actions, major anti-vaccine accounts on social media platforms have gained more than 10 million followers since 2019, including 4 million additional followers on Instagram and 1 million on Facebook, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

“These organizations have been sowing the seeds of doubt about vaccines and public health for years,” said Erica DeWald, advocacy director at Vaccinate Your Family, a nonprofit pro-vaccine organization.

“Now, in the middle of a pandemic, they are accepting funds for the chaos they’ve helped to create,” she said.