Five prominent anti-vaccine organizations that have been known to spread alleged 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 Com Health Resources, Informed Consent Action Network, the Children’s Health Defense Co. 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 alleged misinformation about the coronavirus, despite evidence that raised questions.
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, especially African 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.
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.
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 was undermining the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic.
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 alleged 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.
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In 2020, the group sued Facebook and its fact-checking partners for the ad ban and for 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.
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.