For years, Imran Ahmed has been tracking conversations and actions of online hate groups — and while it has involved some sleuthing, at other times, it requires none at all.
“Never ever, ever underestimate how lazy your colleagues can be,” says Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).
In October 2020, while much of the world was anticipating COVID-19 vaccines, the world’s leading anti-vaxxers were gathering online to strategize how they would oppose the vaccine rollout.
Ahmed, who follows these conspiracy theorists and influencers on social media, noticed them selling tickets to a 3-day conference. He purchased a ticket, attended the event, and observed them share their messaging: “COVID-19 isn’t dangerous, vaccines are dangerous, and you can't trust doctors.”
“We knew their tactics, strategies, themes, communications, brains, organizations, and funding,” Ahmed tells Global Citizen. “We had insight into how they were going to wait for people to express anxiety [about the COVID-19 vaccine] in Facebook groups, and they were going to feed them misinformation.”
After studying online misinformation related to COVID-19, the CCDH released a report titled The Disinformation Dozen, shedding light on 12 of the world’s leading anti-vaxxers and advocating that social media platforms deplatform them.
According to the CCDH’s research, 65% of anti-vaccine content shared on social media is attributable to these 12 individuals.
For years, Ahmed has been tracking conversations and actions of online hate groups, conspiracy theorists and influencers on social media.
The report states that despite repeatedly violating Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter’s terms of service agreements, nine of the Disinformation Dozen remain on all three platforms.
“They think that they can enjoy the revenues of the ads that they serve up to people going for that [anti-vaccine] content, but they don't have to take any accountability or responsibility for the costs that are imposed on society,” Ahmed says.
While social media platforms financially benefit from misinformation, Ahmed says, society deals with the loss, in terms of COVID-19 surges, hospitals at capacity, and a rising death toll, much of which is now linked to those who are unvaccinated.
“[There are] people in ICU right now peddling for their breath, saying, ‘I thought the vaccine was bad, and that's why I didn't take it,’” he adds.
According to Ahmed, this can be eliminated by banning “a small number of super-spreaders,” who are currently using digital spaces with impunity, he says.
“Even when President Biden, even when doctors are begging, even when they see the body counts racking up in hospitals, they still don't care,” he says.
According to the CCDH’s latest figures, the “Disinformation Dozen” have 97 accounts between them across social media platforms, of which 47 have now been removed. While these accounts have collectively lost 6.3 million followers, the still-active accounts have 7.9 million followers.
“So we're kind of halfway through the job,” Ahmed says. “The platforms have taken down 50% [of the leading anti-vaxxers]. I'm a South Asian kid. I don't get 50% in tests. So my job is to get 100% down,” he says.
In September, YouTube announced it would deplatform top anti-vaxxers by removing their videos and banning anti-vaccine content on the website.
Ahmed continues to advocate for social media platforms enforcing their own rules and banning anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists from their platforms, and encourages governments — from the US to the UK — to enforce stricter regulations, although he says to date, governments have not been able to successfully do so.
Imran Ahmed poses for a portrait in Washington, DC, in December 2021.
When it comes to countering misinformation, Ahmed says media outlets need to stop publicizing misinformation, which only exposes more people to it. Instead he says, “We [should] just remind people about the history of vaccines and also the global climate, the global desperation for vaccines. My family is from Afghanistan. Do you know what people back there would give for access to high quality vaccines and cold chain storage?”
Ahmed says before 2020, people used to ask him if online hate groups and conspiracies were a threat in the “real world” or just online.
“After the Capital [Hill] riots, after COVID-19, no one is asking me the question anymore,” he said. “I'm sorry it took all of that for them to realize there was a problem but it did, because that's the world we live in.”
If the past year has taught us anything about global health, it’s the importance of vaccines. The World's Best Shot is a profile series dedicated to sharing the stories of vaccine activists around the world.
Disclosure: This series was made possible with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Each piece was produced with full editorial independence.