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This article was originally published by Tortoise, a different kind of newsroom committed to a slower, wiser news. To try Tortoise, Globe readers can get a 30-day free trial and a special half price offer: just click here and enter the code GLOBEINVITE. You'll get access to all of Tortoise's investigations, live editorial meetings, audio articles and daily news briefing emails.

Six months ago, Erin Mercola at Health Nut News shared a Facebook post saying it was “Pretty incredible how China is building hospitals, and 5G base stations for them, at breakneck speed to fight the coronavirus.”

This wasn’t an expression of admiration. Her followers would have seen her previous posts encouraging them to watch an anti-5G film Take back your power, or to spend $119 to attend an international summit that promised to “show you how 5G wireless is an invasive technological platform that can damage our health and privacy.”

They may even have read her husband’s article which she posted on her website titled The 5G War. At this stage, she didn’t need to echo the early online rumblings about how or why 5G and coronavirus might be linked – planting this small seed to her followers was enough to suggest there must be some connection.

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She didn’t post about 5G and coronavirus again until early March this year, when she filmed her husband, the alternative medicine advocate Joseph Mercola, promoting an immune-boosting “arsenal kit” (available on Erin’s Amazon store). The kit promised to protect against coronavirus, EMF (electromagnetic fields) and 5G.

Over the course of the month, public Facebook posts linking 5G to coronavirus garnered half a million likes, clicks, comments and shares. Among those joining the trend for scare stories were the alternative medicine doctor, Rashid Buttar, Instagram scientologist Rizza Islam and Robert F Kennedy Jr. At the time, these four individuals had a combined Facebook following of over 750,000.

The news organization Tortoise has been examining the torrent of fake news about the pandemic. Despite the efforts of Facebook and fact-checkers, data shows that public posts mentioning 5G and coronavirus have gone on to receive a further four million likes, clicks, comments and shares – and that huge measure of the flow of misinformation is calculated after removing the most significant “false positive” accounts – i.e., posts that were actually debunking misinformation, such as The Daily Show and BBC News.

Those numbers are just a fragment of the whole: They are only for Facebook, not other platforms like Twitter, or private groups like WhatsApp, and they are only the publicly available posts. But what this example demonstrates is the vital role that a handful of accounts can play in getting a fake news story off the ground.

Tortoise gathered a sample of 145,000 Facebook and Instagram posts published since January, 2020, of potential medical misinformation. The misinformation includes: purported health risks of 5G exposure; supposedly harmful ingredients found in vaccines; and conspiracies around the origins and beneficiaries of the coronavirus pandemic, most notably the conspiracy that Bill Gates planned the pandemic in order to plant microchips in us all.

In their search for the individuals who bear the most responsibility for spreading medical misinformation during a global public health crisis, Tortoise reporters have been able to identify a small but influential cluster.

In the sample of misinformation, less than 7 per cent of the accounts gained 80 per cent of the social interactions, measured by the number of likes, shares, comments and clicks that each post generates.

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Within this small group, Tortoise further identified 156 “superspreaders” – the accounts that don’t just concentrate on one medical falsehood or conspiracy but deal in many and to great effect, accumulating more than 10,000 interactions in total. It is only a partial picture – the sample looks at public groups and verified profiles only – but the results are revealing.

On Facebook, the majority of superspreader accounts are groups centred on a particular conspiracy (such as Pizzagate) or fandom (such as fan clubs of the republican activist, Candace Owens). Six of the superspreaders identified explicitly support QAnon, a conspiracy theory classified by the FBI as a domestic terrorism threat in the United States. Tortoise also found over a thousand posts containing hashtags denoting QAnon membership, such as #qanon, #wwg1wga (it stands for Where We Go One We Go All) and #wake-up.

But on both Facebook and Instagram the accounts most successful at spreading medical misinformation are named individuals. In the sample, most successful of all is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the nephew of President John F. Kennedy and son of Bobby Kennedy. But he’s not alone.

Superspreaders operate in overlapping communities, using collaboration as a tactic to boost their reach and following. It’s a mutually beneficial system, albeit one that Kennedy appears to benefit the most from. Among all the medical misinformation posts gathered from Instagram since January, his account receives the highest number of mentions – 95 in total, more than President Donald Trump.

Kennedy explicitly acknowledges and celebrates this ecosystem of mutual support. In an Instagram post from late April, he cites “the solidarity that is critical to our success,” praising “our community’s most prominent and effective leaders, including Del Bigtree, Polly & Bella Tommey, Mark Blaxill, Dr Rashid Buttar, Samoan-Australian activist Taylor Winterstein, and Massachusetts health freedom leader [Candice] Edwards.” Three of those individuals appear in the data set of superspreaders.

It’s not clear why superspreaders are determined to sow distrust in public health during a pandemic and it is likely the reasons vary. There is undoubtedly a profit motive for some; Eric Nepute, a chiropractor described on YouTube as a “real doctor telling it like it is” has already received a warning from the Federal Trade Commission for unlawfully advertising products and services that promise to treat or prevent COVID-19. For others, spreading misinformation may stem from a desire for attention – the list includes a few retired celebrities.

But what does seem to unite, strengthen and in many ways define superspreaders is a shared “conspiracy mindset” that is just as capable of welcoming environmentalists and anti-capitalists on the left, as libertarians defending freedom of choice on the right.

Fundamental to this conspiracy mindset is the idea of “censorship,” a term that was mentioned in more than 900 posts in the Tortoise sample. It provides the ultimate defence. When one of Kennedy’s Instagram posts was marked as partly false by fact-checkers in May, a follower responded: “Who do they think they are to tell us what is false and what not? If the truth doesn’t fit into their narrative, they call it false and take it down. We shall not be silenced!”

And it is a response that won’t be going away any time soon. Following Twitter’s announcement in July of a crackdown on QAnon content, Erin the Health Nut posted on Facebook: “I guess you can’t even post about Q anon any more on Twitter. Anyway I’m open to any and all opinions and what I loved about the viral thread that I had is there were so many different opinions.”

Apart from Robert Kennedy, Jr., none of the individual superspreaders have responded to detailed questions. A Tortoise reporter interviewed Robert Kennedy, Jr. as part of this series and he answered some questions, but he did not wish to engage in writing with a detailed set of questions about his activities.

Globe readers can get a 30-day free trial and a special half price offer to join Tortoise. Just click here and enter the code GLOBEINVITE. You'll get access to all of Tortoise's investigations, live editorial meetings, audio articles and daily news briefing emails.
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