WASHINGTON – Five prominent anti-vaccine organizations that have been known to spread 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 LLC, Informed Consent Action Network, Children’s Health Defense Co., and the Tenpenny Integrative Medical Center, according to the Center for Countering Digital Hate, a U.K.-based advocacy group that fights misinformation, which 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 by penalized by the social network, including being prohibited from buying advertising, for pushing misinformation about covid-19.
Vaccines are largely considered safe and effective, and clinical trials for both Moderna and Pfizer vaccines did not raise serious safety concerns. But many Americans hold skeptical attitudes about vaccination, attitudes public health experts have said are attributable in part to misinformation. Nearly 40% of Americans say they definitely or probably would not get the vaccine, according to a December survey by Pew Research Center. Certain groups, including Republicans and Black Americans, are even more skeptical, Pew found.
Public health officials, including WHO 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 of $72,000 went to the Tenpenny organization, which is run by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an osteopathic physician and social media figure who actively uses online forums to promote alternative health and argue against child and other forms of vaccination. A popular page run by Tenpenny was banned from Facebook in December for spreading misinformation, though she still has tens of thousands of followers on Instagram.
The largest loan of $335,000 went to Mercola, an organization affiliated with the well-known anti-vaccine activist and businessman Dr. Joseph Mercola. One of Mercola’s groups on Facebook was deemed by the left-leaning human rights group Avaaz to be 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., says it does not oppose vaccines, but is dedicated to raising questions about their safety. The group has questioned whether the coronavirus vaccines that have received emergency approval from the FDA are safe, along with questioning 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 last October, Gates said it was “unfortunate” that both he and director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease Dr. Anthony Fauci had been targeted by conspiracy theorists, and worried that falsehoods and misleading information about the virus was undermining the country’s ability to respond to the pandemic.
Organizations tied to Kennedy were responsible for the majority of Facebook advertising critical of vaccinations, until Facebook restricted the group’s ability to advertise in 2019 on the grounds that it spread misinformation, according to a study in the journal Vaccine. Facebook has also 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.
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% of its website traffic from Facebook, according to the lawsuit.
In an interview, Kennedy, an environmental lawyer and a 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 other four PPP recipients described in this story 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 the coronavirus vaccine. Encouraging the safe use of vaccines is considered a vital component of the government’s efforts to alleviate the public health crisis.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate previously exposed a conference in which anti-vaccination activists planned to seize upon people’s doubts and fears to undermine confidence in the coronavirus vaccine.
“Lending money to these organizations so they can prosper is a sickening use of taxpayer money. These groups are actively working to undermine the national covid vaccination drive, which will create long-term health problems that are felt most acutely in minority communities and low-income neighborhoods,” said Imran Ahmed, Chief Executive of Center for Countering Digital Hate.
While it’s unclear whether the anti-vaccine groups broke any rules, their receipt of public assistance is in many ways a consequence of the scattershot way in which the Paycheck Protection Program delivered hundreds of billions of dollars into the economy with few guardrails or preconditions.
The program was built around a controversial decision to allow businesses to self-certify their own eligibility for a taxpayer-backed loan. The SBA does not hand out the loans itself; rather, it empowers a network of approved lenders to quickly process them on its behalf.
Although the SBA reserves the right to audit specific PPP loans, the government performed almost no vetting of specific loan recipients beyond a basic check to determine whether the applicant had already received a loan.
The self-certification policy allowed the government to quickly pump money into a struggling business community during the chaotic months of April and May, by cutting much of the red tape typically associated with loan approvals.
But the broad eligibility criteria and lack of vetting meant numerous questionably-deserving organizations were among the millions of loan recipients. Massive restaurant and hotel chains such as Shake Shack and Sonic benefited handsomely from loans to their affiliates. Debt-collectors and high-interest lenders pocketed more than $500 million. A defense contractor with billions in sales received one.
In some cases the government has tried to claw back money after press coverage highlighted certain recipients. In April it asked publicly traded companies to return funds, and it later accused local Planned Parenthood affiliates of improperly accessing PPP loans.
It’s unclear whether the SBA will take issue with anti-vaccination groups receiving PPP funds.
SBA spokeswoman Carol Wilkerson declined to comment on whether the anti-vaccine organizations were legally eligible for the loans they received. She added that the agency is reviewing loan forgiveness applications to ensure compliance with the rules, and that the next round of PPP funding include more vetting on the front-end before an organization gets a loan.
She suggested that they probably did meet the requirements; the PPP program was open to a wide range of businesses and nonprofits.
“In general, if PPP applicants [or] borrowers met the requirements, they got a loan,” Wilkerson said.
The SBA has previously said in informational materials that a business appearing in its PPP loan database “doesn’t mean that SBA has made an affirmative declaration that a borrower is eligible.”
Misinformation about covid-19 spread widely across social media throughout the pandemic, shared by everyday people as well as anti-vaccine activists and supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory. Now some of those groups have turned their attention to the vaccine, making baseless arguments, for example, that the U.S. government will force people to take it, that it contains microchips, and the people will be compelled to wear some biological marker to prove that they had the vaccine.
The social media pages of the anti-vaccine groups point to articles and research highlighting stories of adverse impacts from the coronavirus vaccine, or warning against forced vaccinations and passports, or the dangers of masks. Many of the posts are factual, but use fearmongering or present a distorted picture of the dangers of vaccines.
Facebook has banned misinformation about the coronavirus and the coronavirus vaccines, and has cracked down on large Facebook groups that oppose or question vaccination, including four of the five groups that received the PPP loans, said spokeswoman Dani Lever.
In recent months, the company also suspended two major groups, including the 100,000-plus-member Stop Mandatory Vaccination, as well as pages belonging to several of the movement’s leading figures. The National Vaccine Information Center is also prohibited from advertising, and the Informed Consent Action Network’s page has been labeled with a link to the World Health Organization and is not being recommended to users by the company’s algorithms, Lever said.
The company did not ban the groups for misinformation, but for what it said was abusive behavior, such as using paid troll farms in North Macedonia and the Philippines to spread messages.
Despite Facebook’s actions, major anti-vaccine accounts on social media platforms have gained more than 10 million new followers since 2019, including 4 million additional followers on Instagram and 1 million on Facebook, according to CCDH.
“These organizations have been sowing the seeds of doubt about vaccines and public health for years,” said Erica Dewald, advocacy director at a pro-vaccine nonprofit called Vaccinate Your Family.
“Now, in the middle of a pandemic, they are accepting funds for the chaos they’ve helped to create,” she said.