On August 10, a producer at Triple J radio show “Hack” reached out to an influencer who has faced sustained criticism around promoting anti-vax content on her Instagram account.
While the influencer’s interview did not air on the show scheduled for later that week, and was met with pushback online, the event raises questions about how the media covers those promoting misinformation online — as well as how the overwhelmingly female social media influencer space is perceived when it comes to conspiracy content.
Leila Stead is the influencer in question. She is among a raft of Australian influencers who have begun posting content that either pushes the boundaries of misinformation, or actively promotes anti-vax and anti-lockdown content.
Stead, who has a social media following of 35,900, uses her platform to promote anti-vax content and as recently as last Wednesday hosted an Instagram Live where she invited her followers to weigh in on the effectiveness of the vaccine.
Instagram users who spoke to Business Insider Australia said that the increasing number of influencers engaging in content around vaccines and lockdowns has been overwhelming.
Isabella, a 24 year old from Brisbane who declined to share her full name, said she’s noticed the change in her feed over the past 18 months, and named several Australian influencers who had jumped into the space.
“Someone I can think of is [Central Coast influencer and Youtuber] Chloe Szep,” she said. “She never posted [this] stuff. And then she got into that space and it has just taken over her whole feed.”
Australian Instagram users also said they have noticed some influencers they follow – or used to follow – who create content containing misinformation now rarely or never appear in their feed.
But they also said they don’t think platforms do enough to monitor and regulate anti-vax and anti-lockdown content shared by influencers.
Isabella said that she recently sent a direct message to Stead after she shared misinformation about the pandemic on Instagram.
“I got a rage inside of me,” she said, and thought; “I have to say something to her.”
The influencer blocked Isabella from communicating with her on the platform.
Isabella said that she also often reports these influencers, but that it’s hard to know what effect this has.
“You can report stuff on Instagram,” she said. “And I do that when they say stuff that’s blatantly misinformation, but it doesn’t really do anything.”
She said she worries that a lot of Stead’s followers are in vulnerable groups more likely to be persuaded by what she says.
“I’ve seen a lot of new mothers, people who are breastfeeding that I think would be impressionable,” she said.
“She just has no responsibility. She’s not a doctor, she doesn’t have any medical degrees. You just can’t post that kind of stuff and not be accountable.”
Cassie, a 26 year old student from Melbourne, told Business Insider Australia that she’s noticed a lot of influencers she used to follow who have begun posting misinformation have now been shadowbanned, but that “it’s not really making much of a difference,”
“I don’t know what they should do, though, but I don’t think it’s enough.”
On Tuesday, Stead posted a screenshot of an invitation from Triple J inviting her to conduct a 10 minute Zoom interview to discuss “COVID-19 and vaccines.”
While the email does not explicitly suggest the interview audio will be used on the program, it states it is an “interview for Triple J’s Hack news program.”
On Stead’s account and in private Facebook groups that track Australian influencers, users pushed back against the idea that she should be given a platform to share her views on an ABC radio station.
“I literally don’t understand why they’re even giving this tosspot a platform,” one person wrote in a private Facebook group.
“Why in earth [sic] would any radio station give an anti-vaxxer a platform?,” another said.
One member of the group suggested it was time for Facebook to close the account of the influencer altogether.
“Agree. I’m really hoping they shut her down,” they wrote.
Last Wednesday, Clementine Ford, an author and media commentator with a strong social media following, posted on an Instagram Story that she had reached out to Triple J to advocate that the program not include influencers that engaged with anti-vax content.
The response from the radio station, which appears in a screenshot, said that Hack was running a segment about the harms and impacts of misinformation being spread by anti-vaxxers on Instagram.
“After speaking to Leila we have decided not to include any commentary from her, or any other anti-vaxers in our segment,” the response said.
Thursday’s episode of Hack did not include a segment on misinformation spread on Instagram. The Friday episode of the show covered misinformation spread on TikTok, and touched on influencers on other social platforms who were also engaging with this kind of content.
The episode did not include interviews with influencers, but did feature audio of wellness influencer Taylor Winterstein voicing concerns about lockdowns and vaccines.
Instead, the episode focused on how young Australians can spot misinformation online, and help those around them impacted by potentially harmful content.
Ford, who has been active in pushing back against anti-vax influencers online, told Business Insider Australia via email that she didn’t want to harm the show or cause a “pile on” but feels strongly as someone with a similarly large online following that such influencers shouldn’t be given airtime.
“Sharing a post to an Instagram story isn’t a concerted call out, but I suppose it does result in a lot of views that can then be immediately directed to the object of the call out,” Ford said.
Ford said she thinks the same consideration should be given to providing a platform to social media influencers as it is to other extremists online.
“Inviting people to speak on a platform – even if the intention is to contradict them – cannot help but automatically lend legitimacy to them as a voice,” Ford said.
“She can’t be reasoned with, so the only purpose of extending an invitation is to either make entertainment out of her or cause controversy.”
Facebook, which owns Instagram, responds to creators sharing misleading content by “shadowbanning” their accounts, which means they can’t be found unless their exact handle is entered into search by a user.
It’s also widely understood by Instagram users that the platform takes actions to adjust how its algorithm responds to accounts it has received complaints about, by ensuring they don’t appear in users’ regular scroll, and that their Instagram Stories are also not promoted.
Since the start of the pandemic, misinformation about COVID-19 has flourished on social media.
Research by Oxford’s Reuters Institute looking at the spread of 225 false or misleading claims about the pandemic found that 88% of the claims had appeared on social media platforms, compared with 9% on tv and 8% in news outlets.
Business Insider Australia asked Facebook how it was currently regulating the content of the accounts of both Stead and Winterstein, as well as how the platform was managing Instagram accounts creating anti-vax and anti-lockdown content more generally.
A spokesperson for the company said it was not able to provide details on how the two accounts were moderated without a longer time frame to investigate, and also referred to its publicly accessible guidelines around how accounts are moderated with regards to sharing COVID-19 and vaccine misinformation.
Is the mostly-female wellness influencer space treated seriously?
While it is unclear how Hack intended to use the interview conducted with the wellness influencer, the event can be compared to another instance of conspiratorial figures being given a platform and voice by Australian media.
One recent example that faced criticism was an episode of ABC’s “Four Corners” that aired in February and featured an interview with Enrique Tarrio, chairman of far right group Proud Boys.
While not unique to Australian media — many media outlets around the world have faced criticism for ‘platforming’ figures associated with extremist groups — experts say it’s a practice that continues to give legitimacy and reach to such people.
Experts also say that misinformation content created by women on social media has a tendency to be treated differently to that of content creators in the mostly male right-wing space.
Elise Thomas, an analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue told Business Insider Australia that while gender dynamics in extremist and conspiratorial groups isn’t something she has formally researched or can quantify, there’s a strong argument that gender and gendered performances impact how this kind of content is perceived.
For one, while white nationalist groups “tend to be overwhelmingly male,” the conspiracy space is much more balanced, Thomas said.
“There are some really complicated and interesting gendered dynamics going on in both of those spaces,” she said.
And there is an argument to be made that “when you look at the actual details of what they’re saying, it’s often pretty similar.”
Thomas said the media coverage around conspiracy generally tended to be more generous.
“I think there’s a sort of a willingness within parts of the media — and this is purely an observation, not based on systematic research — to treat them more gently, and also treat them like they’re a little bit less of a threat than perhaps they really are.”
Similarly, the presentation of these groups that centre women, with “a real emphasis on motherhood, femininity,” which lean on sepia-toned, family-focused marketing, in conjunction with stereotypes around influencers, contribute to a brand that feels less threatening, Thomas said.
“As soon as you say the word influencer, people sort of take it out of that extremism space,” she said. “Which is a real mistake.”
“They are both equally extreme to some extent, but the dynamic there is very, very gendered.”
Thomas said the affinities between groups associated with “white nationalism and white supremacy and sort of that Instagram influencer culture are spreading the message” is worth taking seriously.
“There’s a real crossover there,” she said. “What they’re saying is sometimes no less extreme.”
Audrey Courty, a researcher at Griffith University specialising in digital media and political communication, told Business Insider Australia that conspiratorial content shared by women has the potential to be “more insidious because we do tend to think of women in such passive ways.”
“I absolutely think it’s gendered,” she said.
Courty said that even within academia, where she’s spent time researching Islamist extremism, there’s less of a focus on the role of women within this space.
Online conspiracy communities also complicate the function of the media to hold individuals to account, experts say. Coverage tends to be appropriated into the closed circuits of influencer communities, where reporting is reframed as an attack.
In 2019, “A Current Affair” aired a story about Taylor Winterstein, a prominent advocate in the anti-vax and anti lockdown movements that investigated a conference she was running at the time as well as a range of drinks she claimed had healing properties unattainable with modern medicine.
In response to the episode, Winterstein created a saved Instagram Story tab, which still exists on her account, called ‘ACA exposed’, where she has posted screenshots of followers posting their support, many of them using the hashtag #IStandWithTay.
Winterstein attended July’s anti-lockdown protests with her young family. When the Daily Telegraph and news.com.au reported on detectives serving her a $1,000 fine for attending, it received similar treatment on the influencer’s social media account.
Dr Crystal Abidin, Associate Professor of Internet Studies at Curtin University.whose work covers internet and social media culture, told Business Insider Australia this is an example of the self-reinforcing dynamics of the influencer economy, where “organic everyday people become influencers.”
When they “start talking about their personal experiences with anti-vaccination sentiment and conspiracy content, the persuasion levels are much higher,” Abedin said.
Dr Stephanie Alice Baker, a senior lecturer in sociology at City University of London who is writing a book on wellness culture, told Business Insider Australia that she has seen these kinds of techniques used by conspiratorial influencers “on a global scale.”
“There is a strong tendency for influencers not only to present themselves as heroes of the people, but also to employ this kind of persecuted victim narrative,” Baker said.
“What they then use this narrative for is to mobilise people who are willing to defend the beliefs they advocate.”
However, Baker said aligning the treatment of more conspiratorial wellness influencers with gender was potentially too simplistic.
“I think that it really does depend on the kind of content that people are sharing,” she said.