Anti-vaccine social app squares off with Google, Apple

A new app, Unjected, is testing Google and Apple's policies concerning the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines. Unjected has racked up 18,000 downloads since its launch in May, according to Apptopia. The growing member base defies effort
A new app, Unjected, is testing Google and Apple's policies concerning the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines. Unjected has racked up 18,000 downloads since its launch in May, according to Apptopia. The growing member base defies efforts by public health officials to boost vaccination rates as the highly contagious Covid-19 Delta variant spreads across the US.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • A new social app designed as a community for the unvaccinated is testing Google and Apple's policies concerning the spread of misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

Unjected, started by two women from Hawaii, bills itself as a community for "like-minded people that support medical autonomy and free speech".

The app allows users to make a profile, match and message with other members. It was launched in May shortly after the largest online dating sites, including Match Group's Tinder and Bumble, introduced perks to encourage users to get vaccinated.

Sometimes dubbed the "Tinder for anti-vaxxers", Unjected has since racked up 18,000 downloads, according to Apptopia, and plenty of jokes on Twitter.

Although the platform began as a site for dating and friendships, it recently rolled out a social feed.

A routine update to the app triggered a Google Play reviews that found it had not sufficiently policed user-generated content for misinformation. In e-mails to Unjected, Google flagged posts that included claims of vaccines being "experimental mRNA gene modifiers", "bioweapons" and "nano-technology microchips" used to link people to the 5G network.

Google told Unjected on July 16 that it had two weeks to remove the posts from its app store or get booted off.

"We've had to walk a censorship tightrope," co-founder Shelby Thomson said. Unjected removed the social feed to get back in compliance on Google Play but Ms Thomson said she plans to restore it, along with the flagged posts, and hopes to "stay under the radar".

Other features on the app that remain active include matches, chat rooms, a community directory of "unvaxxed-friendly" businesses and a database where users can list their blood types.

"We're not trying to be harmful to society," said Ms Thomson. "We just want to exercise our freedom of choice."

Apple removed the app from its App Store after being contacted by Bloomberg News. In an e-mail to Unjected, Apple said the app "inappropriately refers to the Covid-19 pandemic in its concept or theme".

Apple requires all coronavirus-related apps to provide credible health and safety data and only come from recognised entities including government bodies, medical or educational institutions and health-focused non-profits.

An Apple spokesman said it had originally denied Unjected during the initial review process and approved the app after it made changes to comply with Covid-19 policies. Since then, "the developer has made statements externally to its users as well as updates to the app that once again bring it out of compliance", Apple said, adding that Unjected encouraged users to steer clear of using certain words to avoid detection. "This is a violation of our guidelines, which make it clear: 'If you attempt to cheat the system… your apps will be removed from the store'."

Alphabet's Google did not immediately comment.

Unjected's views on vaccines have also resonated on Instagram where its account has almost 25,000 followers.

The growing member base defies efforts by public health officials to boost vaccination rates as the highly contagious Covid-19 Delta variant spreads across the United States. Senator Amy Klobuchar recently introduced a Bill to make online platforms like Facebook, which owns Instagram, and Twitter legally liable for misinformation on health issues such as Covid-19.

In January, the app stores banned Parler and Wimkin, both of which market themselves as free-speech havens, for inciting violence at the Capitol riots, though they have since been reinstated.

Unlike Parler and Wimkin, Unjected's platform does not have a political leaning though it has found a warmer reception among conservatives, Ms Thomson said.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 02, 2021, with the headline 'Anti-vaccine social app squares off with Google, Apple'. Subscribe