Once in trouble, anti-vaccination groups have enjoyed a pandemic wind

Del Bigtree wrapped up his closing speech last week anti-vaccination proxy rally in Washington with a message, which was cheered by several thousand protesters and news organizations rallied on a tank in front of him.

“We are no longer a fringe group,” he declared.

Follow newly filed tax file.

ICAN reports revenue of $5.5 million in 2020, up 60% year-over-year. This funding underscores how lucrative the pandemic can be for a handful of groups that spread health misinformation and undermines public trust in vaccines. Those donations have mostly come from private donors, including through Facebook fundraisers.

Other major anti-vaccination organizations have grown similarly during the pandemic. As an Associated Press investigation report, Children’s Health Advocacy, led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. leadership, more than doubled revenue in 2020, to $6.8 million.

While disinformation researchers know that the pandemic has boosted the profile of many anti-vaccination efforts, ICAN documents show how these organizations have also benefited financially.

ICAN has been an initiator since it was founded in 2016. Led by Bigtree, a former television producer and filmmaker with anti-vaccination propaganda, the nonprofit group initially built made a name for itself when it filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against federal health agencies in an apparently unfulfilled mission. to find and report confidential scientific evidence that could disprove the safety of vaccines or support long-discredited theories that vaccines cause harm, including autism.

ICAN, which provided tax returns to NBC News, did not return a request for comment.

Fueled by claims that the scientific community, pharmaceutical industry and media organizations are conspiring to stop these so-called vaccine dangers, ICAN has launched its internet programme, The HighWire” in 2017. The show, hosted by Bigtree, features a rotating cast of the main characters in the series. anti-vaccination movement.

In 2020, the show has rotated almost exclusively to live content. Bigtree says the show draws 6 million viewers per episode, a number that ICAN has not given evidence and NBC News could not confirm. According to data from Similarweb, a digital analytics tool, The Highwire’s website is one of the most popular “alternative and natural medicine websites” in the world and gets just over 1 million visits per year. month.

According to tax filings, ICAN paid Bigtree $146,000 in 2017. By 2020, ICAN had paid him $221,000. Bigtree also gets paid for talks. ICAN’s website describes him as “one of the most sought-after public speakers in the natural health field, often drawing thousands of audiences from around the world to be inspired by his unique blend of passion, wit and scientific expertise.” A 2020 investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report Bigtree charges $3,000 per appearance, excluding airfare and hotels.

“It’s worth it these days,” his manager told an undercover CBC reporter. “He’s very in demand.”

In an emailed response to NBC News, Bigtree said it doesn’t charge speaking fees for unmarked events like protests in state capitals.

As in previous years, most of ICAN’s expenditures go to Siri and Glimstad, a New York law firm advertised its services to challenge vaccine regulations on the website of anti-vaccination groups. ICAN paid $2.1 million for Siri & Glimstad in 2020, according to tax filings.


Although ICAN has nearly doubled in size and revenue each year, according to its existing tax records, its success is not guaranteed. At the end of 2019, the organization – and the anti-vaccination movement itself – faced a new set of challenges.

Follow Selz Foundation tax records) seems Pause Donations in 2019 after The Washington Post reported about their contributions to anti-vaccination organizations.

In 2019, the $2.4 million donation – 70% of ICAN’s total sales for that year – came from a fund advised by donors, a type of charitable intermediary, sometimes used by donors as a means of anonymizing their donations.

Selzs did not return a request for comment, and there is no public evidence linking them to these donations. Bigtree said in an email that ICAN relies on “several very generous donors,” but declined to comment on their identities, saying donors are “protected by law.”

The largest listed donations on ICAN’s 2020 tax filings were two $150,000 gifts. ICAN has revised the names of donors.

During the pandemic, ICAN appears to have transformed its fundraising model.

Unlike its contemporaries in anti-vaccination media, HighWire has no advertisers and no evidence of Bigtree selling supplements or other products popular in the natural health world. . Instead, ICAN relies on individual advocates. Episodes of HighWire are punctuated by calls for donations from Bigtree. In November, ICAN launched a fundraiser calling for donors to contribute between $100 and $500 for personalized bricks to pave a road from ICAN headquarters to HighWire’s studio, both both in Austin, Texas.

“That sponsor is you,” he said in a promotional video.

According to ICAN’s creative director, Patrick Layton, more than 1,000 bricks have been sold, who reported the sales in an update posted to Facebook.

Part of that still comes through Facebook. The platform hosts fundraisers for ICAN, bringing in $13,500 in 2020 and at least $23,000 in 2021, according to NBC News’ analysis of Facebook campaigns. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.

ICAN also received $165,000 in a federal loan from the Paycheck Protection Program in May 2020. In its application, ICAN said the money would be used to pay employees.

Bigtree said in an email that the government has “completely forgiven the loan.”

“The federal loan certainly comes at a critical time. He said:


ICAN faced an additional hurdle in 2019 following a measles outbreak in Samoa that killed 83 people (mostly children) and a series of regional outbreaks in the US After those outbreaks, the social media platforms that anti-vaccination groups depend on to spread their message and attract new followers start holding back about misinformation, disallow advertising, and regulate the reach of their pages.

With no funding and their foundations in jeopardy, at a time when ICAN’s future seemed most uncertain, the pandemic hit.

At various points during the pandemic, Bigtree has spread many statements are misleading or completely untrueincluding that wearing a mask is dangerous but Covid is not, and that people should rebel against the government, break the quarantine, be ready to infect themselves and then use the treatments has not been shown to be effective against Covid-19.

When presented with these statements, Bigtree rejected the conclusion that he or ICAN spread misinformation.


According to Renée DiResta, director of research at the Stanford Internet Observatory, ICAN has captured a new online audience with messages, who have tracked the development of anti-vaccination groups during the pandemic, and call it “Their moment.”

YouTube was the first to act, removing seven of Bigtree’s videos under Covid’s disinformation policy last summer, including “MASK IS A FUN” and “WE NEED COOL KEEPING!” By August 2020, ICAN’s channel, which has 250,000 subscribers, has been completely terminated.

Facebook removed The HighWire’s 360,000-follower page in November 2020, citing repeated violations of its policy on misinformation that could cause physical harm. In February 2021, Facebook deleted The Highwire’s Instagram account, which had more than 200,000 followers.

According to ICAN, the damage was huge, reacted by suing both companies in federal courtasserts that the platforms are “state institutions” and that censorship of content violates the nonprofit group’s right to free speech.

“It is losing its ability to reach billions of potential viewers,” the complaint states. These platforms have “severely limited ICAN’s ability to reach followers and raise funds for its charitable mission”. Federal Judge rejected ICAN’s statements and dismissal of the case last week, concluding that Facebook and YouTube are not government actors.

Despite ICAN’s claims in court filings, Bigtree argued that the pandemic was good for business. During his speech at an anti-vaccination rally in January, before leading the Washington crowd to shout “freedom,” Bigtree said, “My audience is bigger now than yours and they’re growing.” up every day.”

https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/internet/struggling-anti-vaccination-groups-enjoyed-pandemic-windfall-rcna14402 Once in trouble, anti-vaccination groups have enjoyed a pandemic wind

Jake Nichol

Jake Nichol is a 24ssports U.S. News Reporter based in London. His focus is on U.S. politics and the environment. He has covered climate change extensively, as well as healthcare and crime. Jake Nichol joined 24ssports in 2021 from the Daily Express and previously worked for Chemist and Druggist and the Jewish Chronicle. He is a graduate of Cambridge University. Languages: English. You can get in touch with me by emailing: jakenichol@24ssports.com.

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