Janny Organically is a person. Or maybe she’s a few people—it’s hard to tell. At any rate, Janny Organically is an Instagram account, and, with 104,000 followers, a decently popular one at that. Fans enjoy stylishly composed memes in fonts and hues that look like they might belong on a tea towel in a hipster souvenir shop, with lightly anti-authoritarian yet vague messaging. Janny Organically might be urging you to try a new yoga class, or fomenting a revolution, it’s not entirely clear. “Be careful not to confuse cowardice with morality,” reads one post in a script that evokes a 1970s romance novel, in front of some softly blurred flowers. Another one is less subtle: against a sepia-filtered photo of a desert road, are the words, “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”
Janny Organically is not, of course, the only Instagram account to post memes with vague slogans—social media platforms are full of them. But usually, if you want to find out about the person or business behind the pithy messages, you can look at the bio section of the account. There you might find some clues—say, “homeschool mom of four” or “graphic design firm in Portland, Oregon.” But in Janny Organically’s case, the bio section is as cryptic as the memes themselves: “Reflexive Contrarian. Give my regards to your puppet master.” And then there’s a link to a page hosted by a service called Campsite.bio. As you scroll through, the blurry picture of Janny Organically will slowly come into focus: The person in question appears to be a seller of natural remedies. There are links to places where you can buy products with names like “calendula hydrosol” and “essential lipids.” There are discount codes. There is an Amazon shop.
And amidst all of that, there are copious links to anti-vaccine websites.
There is an article on “Merck Fraud” from Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s anti-vaccine group Children’s Health Defense. There is a “vaccine guide” that warns of harmful additives and hidden adverse reactions to immunizations. There is a site that urges people to be part of the COVID-19 vaccine “control group” by not getting vaccinated; there is a place where you can purchase a tank top that says “separate pharma & state.”
If the content in these links were posted on Instagram itself, they could trip the platform’s misinformation algorithms because they contain factually incorrect statements. (The vaccine guide link, for example, suggests that vaccines cause autism, which isn’t true.) If the algorithm picked up on this, the account could be suspended or even banned. But Janny Organically and a host of other Instagram users have figured out a clever workaround: They’ve found sites that allow you to curate a list of links under one tidy and unassuming URL. Janny Organically uses one of two very popular link curating platforms: a Milwaukee-based company Campsite.bio. Another is Linktree, an Australian company. Campsite.bio doesn’t share much about its size, but its client roster includes some big names: Dell, USA Softball, and the popular WNYC radio show Radiolab, to name a few. According to Linktree’s website, it has 8 million clients and offices in Sydney and Los Angeles. Instagram users also have the option of using a link-list service called Linkin.bio, which is hosted by Instagram itself.
I counted dozens of popular anti-vaccine Instagram accounts that use link lists, including a chiropractor in San Diego with 33,000 followers, an essential-oils-peddling homeschool mom in Tennessee with 101,000 followers, and an Australian podcaster with 80,000 followers. Some organizations use them, too: A powerful anti-vaccine advocacy group called Freedom Keepers United uses a Campsite link on its Instagram account, which has more than 66,000 followers. Another anti-vaccine group, Moms for Liberty, uses Linktree in several of its local chapters.
Some of these accounts go far beyond simply opposing vaccine mandates: One called igactivist links readers to wild theories about how the COVID-19 pandemic is a prelude to the collapse of banks and government mind control. Alongside products like T-shirts with slogans like “normalize breastfeeding” and “Mama Bear,” the Linktree on the Instagram account Bjoans connects to the Liberty First Society, a right-wing education group founded by attorney KrisAnne Hall who, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, has made appearances with a white nationalist group.
Anti-vaccine organizations’ link lists also show signs of this right-wing cross-pollination: The Linktree on the Instagram account of the Williams County, Tennessee, chapter of Moms for Liberty leads readers to a true-or-false quiz that exposes the purported evils of critical race theory in schools’ curricula. The Instagram account of the Liberty Counsel, a right-wing law practice that the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated a hate group, uses a Linktree to bring readers to its website, which is filled with warnings about the dangers not only of COVID vaccine mandates but also of “homosexual conduct.” The Instagram account of Patriot Mobile, a company that describes itself as “America’s only Christian conservative wireless provider,” implies in a link on its Linktree that the 2020 presidential election may have been rigged. Devin Burghart, executive director for the hate-group research firm Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, has observed this mixing of far-right movements more broadly—his group’s recent research suggests that the anti-vaccination movement might be something of a gateway for other far-right causes. “It’s a quick slide down that road to radicalization,” he says.
Link curators are just one of the tools that a new generation of anti-vaccine activists are using to evade social media disinformation controls. Back in March, the Center for Countering Digital Hate wrote about the Disinformation Dozen, a group of 12 anti-vaccine advocates who, the report claims, are responsible for two-thirds of vaccine misinformation on the internet. There’s no doubt that these figures are wildly influential and some, like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. who founded the anti-vaccine group Children’s Health Defense, are well known. Others are also practically celebrities in some of the more extreme corners of the alternative facts universe; the popular alternative health guru Dr. Joseph Mercola, for instance, and Dr. Christiane Northrup, a gynecologist who promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory along with COVID-19 disinformation. Many of the members of the Disinformation Dozen have been banned from social media platforms. Last week, YouTube kicked them off.
This deplatforming has left the Disinformation Dozen scrambling—they no longer have easy access to their audience and appear to lack the technical prowess to work around the system. One reason may be generational: The members of the Disinformation Dozen, most of whom are squarely in the Boomer generation, mainly use blogs, Facebook, and YouTube to spread their messages. A few weeks ago, I spoke to Kolina Koltai, a University of Washington researcher who studies the anti-vaccine movement’s use of social networks. Koltai and her colleagues at the misinformation-tracking group the Virality Project recently published a report about the strategies that the younger generation of anti-vaxxers deploy to evade social media filters such as taking advantage of link-list services. Another popular strategy, the report notes, is the use of images rather than text to convey messages—that’s because it’s much harder for algorithms to search text in an image. Savvy influencers have found that memes are handy for this purpose.
This younger generation “may not have the same name brand as a Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., but they still have really loyal followers,” she said. “They’re actually a lot more dangerous because they can be really good at avoiding content moderation. So, these people are flying under the radar.” Burghart drew a distinction between the styles of anti-vaccine activism on various social media platforms. Activists on Instagram—along with those on the social media video platform TikTok—are “relying on the passive influencer model, rather than the explicit political organizing that happens in the groups on Facebook,” he said.
One reason that link-list services are rife with disinformation may be that the companies aren’t adequately monitoring their content. When I asked Campsite.bio about its content policies, a company spokesperson told me that the company “does not have our own misinformation policies or algorithms” and that it instead focuses on “illegal activity and community reporting to be compliant with social networks like Facebook.” A Linktree spokesperson emphasized that the company has “taken a consistent stance against COVID-19 misinformation,” and directed me to the “self-harm” section of its Community Standards page. Yet the page never mentions COVID-19 or vaccines specifically; it only says that it prohibits “potentially harmful alternatives to medical treatment.” The spokesperson added, “Any users reporting violations of this policy is helpful to enforcing our policy and addressing this problem.”
It’s debatable whether link-list services—and the social media platforms like Instagram where they are often used—are on the hook for their users’ inflammatory content. A few weeks ago, when I wrote about an app for churches that have given voice to anti-vaccine advocates, the attorneys with whom I spoke pointed out that the app company was neither creating nor curating the content. Companies that simply host content, they said, probably wouldn’t be legally culpable.
Yet don’t companies still have an ethical responsibility to make sure that their platform isn’t contributing to the spread of misinformation? Dorit Reiss, a legal scholar and professor who studies vaccines and the law at the University of California-Hastings College of Law, says yes. Facebook, which owns Instagram, did not answer my questions about its policies, but it says on its misinformation website that it is committed to “stopping false news from spreading, removing content that violates our policies, and giving people more information so they can decide what to read, trust and share.” Given this policy, one could argue that the company has a moral imperative to vet link lists posted by its users. “If they mean business when they’re saying they’re not going to let themselves be used to promote misinformation that puts people at risk, then they probably have a responsibility to do what they can,” says Reiss.
Until they do, social media users will continue to hide misinformation in their link lists and other places where the censors won’t look for it. As one anti-vaccine influencer recently wrote in an Instagram meme, “How can you tell when the truth is being told? Facebook ‘fact checks’ it. Twitter deletes it. YouTube bans it.” Hours after I contacted Janny Organically for comment on this article, the link list vanished from the account, and all the links had been removed from the link list itself. This generation of misinformation purveyors enjoys the cat-and-mouse game. And so far, they’re winning.