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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

These vaccine skeptics are outperforming news outlets on Facebook, Twitter, study finds

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Thursday! A quick programming note: The newsletter is off tomorrow, but back Monday. We'll miss you, too. 

Below: Twitter mistakenly removes accounts of researchers studying Russian disinformation, and an Amazon union leader was arrested in New York.

These vaccine skeptics are outperforming news outlets on Facebook and Twitter, study finds

Two prominent sources of anti-vaccine information drew massive engagement and grew their audiences on Facebook and Twitter last year, in many cases outpacing a slew of news organizations, according to a new study shared exclusively with The Technology 202.

The report, produced by the German Marshall Fund (GMF) think tank, zeroes in on the reach of the popular conservative media site the Daily Wire, founded by Ben Shapiro, and of the Children’s Health Defense, a group founded by longtime anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. 

It found that Kennedy and his group, which news rating service NewsGuard reports “has published false and unproven scientific and health information,” have more than doubled their Twitter followings since January 2021. And researchers said the Daily Wire has been the most popular news publisher on Facebook since July 2021, with much of its engagement “centered around content critical of vaccines and vaccine policy.”

Researchers say the findings highlight that sites known to spread misleading or false medical information at times dramatically outperform reliable sources on social media, and that anti-vaccine content can be a driver for that engagement.

“Not only are these sites gaining audience share while trafficking in false or misleading claims, these claims seem to be driving some of their engagement,” said Karen Kornbluh, director of GMF’s Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative and an Obama administration alum.

According to the study, the Daily Wire was the top-performing site in terms of engagement every week during the second half of 2021, and it drew more interactions — likes, comments and shares — than the New York Times, The Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times and NPR combined. And the site garnered “the most [interactions] of any outlet on vaccine mandate articles, and nearly triple the next highest site,” according to the report.

Daily Wire founder Shapiro is vaccinated and has encouraged his followers to obtain the vaccine; he has railed against vaccine and mask mandates, particularly when distribution is focused on children

The study also found that the Daily Wire’s posts about vaccine mandates in particular drew significantly more engagement than their typical ones, “indicating that the site found success in pushing content that tapped into ongoing culture wars around U.S. COVID policies.” 

NewsGuard has found that the site has “published unsubstantiated and inaccurate claims about COVID-19.”

On Twitter, the Children’s Health Defense has “regularly outperformed more reliable news outlets that met NewsGuard’s criteria for trustworthiness, despite repeatedly publishing false information about COVID-19,” according to the report. That included posts misleadingly claiming that Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to President Biden, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates “admitted … that the [COVID] vaccines aren’t effective.”

The findings also raise questions about the efficacy of how  platforms have responded to misleading health claims, including by adding information labels to posts and surfacing authoritative sources of medical information.

Researchers found that the Children’s Health Defense “frequently evades fact-check labels” on Twitter. “Anti-vaccine promoters managed to evade platform policies, distorting the information system with out-sized footprints during the second half of 2021,” researchers wrote.

“It will take stepped-up efforts from the platforms to tackle this problem going forward,” Kornbluh said.

Aaron Simpson, a spokesperson for Facebook parent company Meta, said in a statement, “Voicing opposition to government mandates is not against our policies … What we do have clear rules against is harmful COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.” Twitter teams frequently apply warnings to links posted to the site, and exclude some Tweets with particular links from amplification and recommendations, according to Twitter spokesperson Elizabeth Busby. 

Representatives from the Children’s Health Defense and the Daily Wire did not return requests for comment.

A separate GMF report last year found that sites that share news misleadingly, rather than blatantly lying, drew record shares of engagement on Facebook. 

Together, the findings show how influential and wide-reading this kind of murky content that often stops just short of falsehood can be online. 

Our top tabs

Twitter mistakenly deleted accounts exposing Russian disinformation

Researchers have posted evidence on Twitter in recent weeks showing that Russian-made videos claiming to show violence in Ukraine’s separatist regions were faked. But their accounts were deleted, sparking speculation that a Russian-led effort had gotten them banned from the platform, Craig Timberg reports. But Twitter was actually responsible for the problem, with its reviewers mistakenly banning them after concluding that videos posted by researchers were manipulated images, Twitter spokeswoman Katie Rosborough said. 

Rosborough cited Twitter’s policy against “synthetic and manipulated media.” She also said she knew of less than a dozen accounts that had been affected.

Bellingcat researcher Nick Waters said he counted 15 erroneously blocked accounts. “He welcomed the acknowledgment of error by Twitter but said such problems have happened repeatedly around the world, including in Syria, Turkey and India,” Craig writes.

Police arrested an Amazon union organizer in Staten Island

Amazon Labor Union President Chris Smalls was charged with trespassing, resisting arrest and obstructing governmental administration, Bloomberg News’s Josh Eidelson, Michael Tobin, and Fola Akinnibi report. Two workers who support the union were also arrested, though it’s not clear whether they’ve been charged or released.

It came as the Staten Island Amazon warehouse prepares for a unionization vote in around a month.

Smalls drove into the warehouse’s parking lot to deliver food and union literature for employees to share, union vice president Connor Spence, who said he witnessed the incident, told Bloomberg News. Amazon says it fired Smalls in 2020 for breaking its safety rules; Smalls said he was raising concerns about its coronavirus policies.

Amazon didn’t say whether it called the police, telling Bloomberg News that it “did not call the police on employees.” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel told the outlet that “Smalls — who is not employed by Amazon — has repeatedly trespassed despite multiple warnings. Today, when police officers asked Mr. Smalls to leave, he instead chose to escalate the situation and the police made their own decision on how to respond.”

Amazon Labor Union attorney Seth Goldstein said that calling the police constituted a violation of a National Labor Relations Board settlement. The outlet couldn’t reach Smalls for comment.

Rant and rave

Facebook parent Meta unveiled its plans for artificial intelligence and the metaverse at an event Wednesday, Reuters's Elizabeth Culliford reports. CNET's Queenie Wong and Laura Hautala:

The artificial intelligence technology still needs some work. CNN's Rachel Metz:

Meanwhile, Meta's metaverse continues to lack a key feature: legs. Writer Mike Acker:

Workforce report

How Whitney Wolfe Herd's 'Faustian bargain' with a Russian mogul made her a billionaire but left early Bumble employees without any stock (Insider)

Google relaxes mandates, opens amenities as it prepares for workers to return (CNBC)

Inside the industry

Apple and M. Night Shyamalan must face director's lawsuit in latest court twist (Reuters)

Whistleblower: Russia taps Facebook ‘herds’ to sow division in Ukraine (Politico Europe)

Elon Musk accuses Biden of ignoring Tesla, but says he would 'do the right thing' if invited to White House (CNBC)

Russia could use cryptocurrency to blunt the force of U.S. sanctions (The New York Times)

Fed up with Google, conspiracy theorists turn to DuckDuckGo (The New York Times)

Privacy monitor

Meet the secretive surveillance wizards helping the FBI and ICE wiretap Facebook and Google users (Forbes)


You need a $200 Stem Player to hear Ye's new album 'Donda 2' (Mashable)


  • International antitrust enforcers and FTC commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson speak at the George Mason Law Review's 25th annual antitrust symposium, which takes place this week.
  • White House senior adviser and infrastructure coordinator Mitch Landrieu and Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) discuss infrastructure investment at a Washington Post Live event today at 1 p.m.
  • Colorado Attorney General Philip Weiser (D) speaks at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology’s Privacy Law Forum at 2:20 p.m. today.
  • Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and U.S. Chief Data Scientist Denice Ross speak at the State of the Net conference Monday.
  • Former president Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, speaks at a Heritage Foundation event on U.S. tech competition with China on Monday at 11 a.m.
  • The House Small Business Committee holds a hearing on small businesses and antitrust on Tuesday at 10 a.m.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on legislation targeting Big Tech on Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.
  • Acting White House Office of Science and Technology Policy director Alondra Nelson and others speak at the Social Science Research Council’s launch of its Just Tech platform on Tuesday at 1 p.m.

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