Search the term “vaccine” on YouTube, and the top results will be news stories about the COVID-19 vaccines from sources like CBS, Good Morning America, and CNN. Search that same term on Rumble, a video-streaming platform that has become popular with conservatives as an alternative to YouTube, and it serves up videos with titles like, “Vaccine Halted In Europe After Deaths & DC Arrests” and “Why You MUST Refuse The Vaccine.”
As coronavirus vaccines become more widely available to the general public, misinformation meant to discourage people from getting a shot is rising in tandem. Major platforms have been trying to crack down on medical myths and unfounded anti-vax scares: YouTube announced last week that it had deleted more than 30,000 videos containing false or misleading claims about the vaccines, while Facebook recently changed its policies so that moderators will remove vaccine misinformation, rather than just downranking it in newsfeeds. (Of course, some of this content still makes it through. “This is the right step for Facebook, but they still need to keep up because anti-vaxxers are moving fast,” said George Washington University public health professor Y. Tony Yang, who noted that some users have found workarounds for the bans like using codewords.) Content creators pushing anti-vaccine propaganda are now fleeing to smaller social media platforms that market themselves as “free speech” alternatives with lax to nonexistent moderation policies. For video, the biggest of these alternative platforms appears to be Rumble.
“When we started to see the removal of conspiracy content and particularly anti-vax content from YouTube in a more concerted way, there was a corresponding increase in community sharing of links to Rumble,” said Melanie Smith, the head of analysis at the social media analysis company Graphika. “Just looking at links that have been shared by the anti-vaxxers that we’re monitoring, Rumble is number one.” Smith added that Rumble seems to have risen to this top spot among anti-vaxxers within the last month.
Rumble is a video-sharing platform headquartered in Toronto that was founded in 2013 by Canadian tech entrepreneur Chris Pavlovski. It started out as a site dedicated to helping small-time creators make money from their videos. For the first seven years, the most popular videos on Rumble were mostly just cute pet and baby videos. In 2020, as some conservatives grew more and more resentful of YouTube and other major platforms’ moderation policies, prominent figures like California Rep. Devin Nunes and Sean Hannity began pushing their followers decamp to Rumble, where the rules for video content are considerably laxer. The rules on Rumble are so lax that medical misinformation has flourished on the site.
Right-wing users, particularly of the extremist and pro-Trump variety, accelerated their search for alternative platforms after major social media companies like Twitter and Facebook stepped up their measures against misinformation surrounding the 2020 election. As Smith sees it, some of these alternative platforms like Parler and Gab, which are similar to Twitter, have had success by branding themselves as champions of free speech, even though it’s clear what flavor of speech the platform is a home for. Other platforms have been able to attract aggrieved conservatives by offering features that aren’t available on major sites; for instance, Telegram lets people send videos and images alongside messages with end-to-end encryption. Rumble belongs to the former category; it does have a different monetization scheme than YouTube, but most of the appeal among prominent backers like Dan Bongino seems to be its light-touch approach to moderation and critical mass of right-wing users. Pavloski told Fortune in November, “We’re not involved in fact-checking; we’re not arbitrators of truth.” Now that major platforms are moving to prevent medical misinformation from spreading as the vaccine becomes more widely available, anti-vaxxers are finding a home on these alternative social networks as well. Crucially, there appears to be a considerable amount of overlap between anti-vaxxers and right-wing extremist movements like QAnon.
While Rumble does have some very, very light moderation policies in areas such as terrorism and pornography, medical content appears to be a Wild West on the platform—the opposite, in a way, of YouTube and Facebook, which have at times been more attentive to medical misinformation than other kinds of harmful content. Videos discouraging people from taking the vaccine have been racking up hundreds of thousands of views on the site. A notably viral video features prominent coronavirus and vaccine conspiracist Simone Gold speaking before a Florida church, in which she misleadingly refers to COVID-19 vaccines as an “experimental biological agent” and strongly discourages anyone from the ages of 20 to 70 to get vaccinated. She also props up discredited COVID-19 treatments like hydroxychloroquine, presenting them as preferable alternatives to vaccines, and falsely suggests that the government is experimenting on Black people to determine the safety of the vaccines for everyone else. Her speech has been posted in multiple videos on Rumble, accumulating more than 1.6 million views. The most popular video of her speech, which has received more than 855,000 views, is titled, “Banned from YouTube: Dr. Simone Gold shares the truth about the COVID-19 vaccines.” Getting kicked off of YouTube, it seems, is a badge of honor for these anti-vaxxers. (Gold was arrested in January for participating in the Capitol riot.) Other popular videos include an interview featuring anti-vaxxer Sherri Tenpenny making bogus claims about the vaccines causing auto-immune diseases, which has received more than 146,000 views, and an interview featuring conspiracy theorist Lee Merritt falsely insisting that the vaccines were released before receiving FDA approval, which has received nearly 130,000 views.
Another prominent anti-vax social media influencer who has found an audience on Rumble is Del Bigtree. He regularly receives thousands, and at times tens of thousands, of views on the site for his talk show The HighWire, which according to experts has become required viewing for anti-vaxxers. “What Del Bigtree did that anti-vaccine people didn’t have before is create this weekly program that’s a focal point for everyone. He’s the one who comes to every anti-vaccine activist’s home every week,” said Dorit Reiss, a University of California, Hastings College of Law professor who has conducted research on Bigtree’s videos about the coronavirus. The messages that he disseminates through his program then echo across the anti-vaccine informational ecosystem. Bigtree became well known in the space after producing the notorious anti-MMR vaccine documentary 2016 Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe, and the pandemic has helped to further raise his profile. Tara Smith, a public health professor at Kent State University who has worked with Reiss to analyze Bigtree’s content, noted that he seemed to have seen a spike in his number of social media followers in early 2020, around the time when the coronavirus began making its way across the U.S. “A lot of people who hadn’t heard of him before were coming to him for information on the pandemic,” she said. “He’s still getting information out there because I see people quoting him.” YouTube and Facebook removed Bigtree’s accounts from their platforms later in 2020 for spreading coronavirus misinformation. Rumble, however, continues to host his show. In an episode from last week, which received more than 73,000 views on Rumble, Bigtree baselessly claims that the vaccines will end up making the coronavirus much deadlier.
Part of Rumble’s success with anti-vaxxers is thanks to the fact that video has been a particularly fruitful medium for creators looking to broadcast misinformation across the internet. “Video is the format through which the most viral content becomes popular,” said Melanie Smith. According to Smith, the most common way for a Rumble video to spread is for users to share links from the site on larger platforms like Facebook or Twitter.
When asked about the anti-vaccine content on his site, Pavlovski told Slate, “Rumble has strict moderation policies when it comes to inciting violence, illegal content, racism, antisemitism, and promoting terrorist groups (designated by US and Canadian governments), as well as violating copyrights are among many other restrictions found in our Terms.” He did not comment on medical misinformation.