The global anti-vaccination industry, including influencers and followers, generates up to $1.1 billion in annual revenue for social media giants, according to a damning new report published this week. Anti-vaccine content creates a vast amount of engagement for leading technology platforms, including Facebook and Instagram, with an estimated total social media audience of 62 million people. The arrangement works both ways, with the anti-vax industry earning up to $36million a year.

The Center for Digital Hate, based in Washington D.C., has called on social media companies to deplatform leading anti-vaxxers, who are responsible for the majority of vaccine misinformation generated online. The Center’s CEO, Imran Ahmed, said that the $36 million estimate was conservative and that their real profits could be much higher. 

In March, the Center identified a “disinformation dozen” of influencers who have been responsible for almost two-thirds of all anti-vaccine social media content shared or posted in February and March. According to Ahmed, influencers’ confidence in spreading propaganda online comes from “years of impunity,” during which they have been allowed to broadcast their message without consequences. 

A Facebook company spokesperson disputed the report’s estimates about advertising revenue generated by anti-vaxxers, adding: “We are running the world’s largest online vaccine information campaign, labelling every post regarding the vaccines with accurate information and we’ve removed profiles, pages and content identified in these reports. During the pandemic we’ve removed 18 million pieces of harmful misinformation about Covid-19 and worked with 80 fact-checking organizations to label over 167m posts as false.” 

“Anti-vaxxers are dependent on Big Tech’s failure to take enforcement action against them, despite serially breaking the community standards of the major platforms,” said Ahmed. “We need government authorities, including regulators and prosecutors, to take rapid action to establish the scale of their malignant activity and then clamp down on criminal profiteering from health misinformation.”

The Center for Countering Digital Hate’s investigation also found that influencers’ attempts to push their followers onto “lifeboat” accounts on smaller platforms such as Telegram has had limited success, while deplatforming is successful in preventing them gaining wider audiences. The report states that leading anti-vaccine organizations led by big names in the industry, such as Robert F. Kennedy Jr., Del Bigtree and Larry Cook, have admitted in legal filings that they need mainstream platforms, such as Facebook and YouTube, in order to make money and spread their ideas. 

“Deplatforming disinformation superspreaders doesn’t mean they move elsewhere and carry on as normal — in their own words, it has ‘demolished’ their ability to spread misinformation,” Ahmed said. 

The report also delves into the complex web of marketing and profiteering that makes up the anti-vaccine industry, highlighting how influencers often collaborate to promote each others’ content and sell products via affiliate links. One example highlights the case of the U.S.-based anti-vaccination entrepreneurs Ty and Charlene Bollinger, who claimed to have paid out $14 million to others who promoted their digital and physical products online. 

Covid-19 has provided a marketing bonanza for anti-vaccine influencers, according to Ahmed. “Throughout this pandemic, people around the world took unprecedented steps to keep each other safe, but it was Christmas morning for anti-vaxxers, who profited at the expense of public health,” he said.