'We are talking about people's lives': Dire warnings of public health crisis as COVID-19 vaccine misinformation rages

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Hours after Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old grandmother from the United Kingdom, became the first person to get the COVID-19 vaccine, anti-vaxxers claimed she didn't exist, that she was dead and that she was part of a Bill Gates scheme to implant microchips.

A USA TODAY analysis of one popular tweet claiming Keenan was a "crisis actress" shows how quickly this misinformation can spread.

A tweet shared by @bankiegirl at 2:38pm UK time on Dec. 8 received more than 400 retweets from accounts sharing hashtags like #DoNotComply and #WeDoNotConsent.

Before that time the next day, more than 475,000 Twitter users had been potentially exposed, a number calculated by adding up the total number of followers of each account that retweeted @bankiegirl's post.

On Facebook, the same message and images, posted by Chris Claxton, received more than 183 comments and 289 shares.

Researchers warn this is just the beginning of viral hoaxes on that will feed off the unknowns of the virus and the vaccines to undercut in the coming wave of immunizations.

With the first doses of a vaccine days away from distribution in the U.S. and the death toll from the virus climbing, opposition to the vaccine is resonating, not just with fringe anti-vaccine communities but with swaths of mainstream America, whose faith in science and government has been badly shaken by the pandemic, they say.

Already, about 2 in 10 U.S. adults say they are "pretty certain" they won't get the vaccine even when there is more information, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last week.

The urgency to address the riptide of misinformation is only growing as coronavirus cases surge and hospital beds fill with critically ill patients, researchers say.

Most alarming are false claims deterring communities of color already wary of the vaccine and distrustful of the medical establishment over past mistreatment. Fewer than half of African Americans—42%—say they would get the vaccine, according to a December report from the Pew Research Center, even though they are almost three times more likely than to die from COVID-19.

"I am deeply concerned because the same information campaign which initially downplayed the severity of COVID-19, downplayed the number of cases, then downplayed the number of deaths is now shifting to focus on the vaccine," said Emerson Brooking, resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab and co-author of "LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media."

According to a survey by Acxiom of 5,000 U.S. consumers from Nov. 25 to Dec. 4, conspiracy theories are shaping people's perceptions of the vaccine, with 44% of respondents saying there's some truth to the unfounded claim that the death rate from COVID-19 has been deliberately exaggerated and half of those, 22%, saying it is "definitely true." Even worse, 41% of respondents believe the coronavirus was either probably or definitely created and spread by powerful forces or people.

"Prior to this year, day to day, people generally didn't think about vaccines. They were not reading content about vaccines. It wasn't part of their daily intake," said Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public, who studies the anti-vaccine movement. "Today, I feel like most people can't go a whole day without hearing something COVID-related or vaccine-related."

The volume of COVID-19 vaccine theories peddled by anti-vaccination groups large and small and hucksters looking to make a quick buck off people's fears with bogus health remedies is already so vast that researchers warn social media platforms may be powerless to stanch it. They are calling it a second pandemic and warn it poses a grave and immediate public health threat.

What's more, this "infodemic" is only going to accelerate as inoculations begin and more vaccines are approved, says Lisa Kaplan, founder of Alethea Group, which works on disinformation and misinformation threats.

If Americans are fooled by falsehoods masquerading as facts and don't get the vaccine, they will be putting themselves and their communities at risk and delaying the nation's return to normal, Kaplan said.

"That's how we need to look at the severity of this," she said. "We are talking about people's lives, their jobs, their health and the health of their families. This is extremely high-stakes."

Anti-vaxxers have long reach on Facebook

False claims about vaccines have circulated on social media platforms for years, giving rise to a powerful anti-vaxxer movement with deep roots and a long reach.

This week, Facebook took down at least nine pages that were funneling millions of followers to unfounded claims about the coronavirus, the flu vaccine and other health issues after the nonpartisan think tank German Marshall Fund flagged them as part of a coordinated network.

Last week, Facebook said it would remove claims about COVID-19 vaccines that have been discredited by public health experts such as the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"This is another way that we are applying our policy to remove misinformation about the virus that could lead to imminent physical harm," the company said.

Still, an untold number of smaller anti-vaccination groups continue to operate and, because they are more adept at spreading their message, they are reaching more people than their pro-vaccination counterparts, researchers say.

Neil Johnson, a professor of physics at George Washington University who studies online extremism, says the anti-vaxxer movement is fueling vaccine hesitancy.

A report by the London-based nonprofit organization Center for Countering Digital Hate found that the anti-vaccination movement has grown since 2019. The investigation of 409 English-language anti-vaxx social media accounts found that these accounts now have 58 million followers, an increase of 8 million.

Vaccine hoaxes spread from fringe to mainstream

Anti-vaccination sentiment, once confined to fringe groups seeped into news feeds and timelines, is gaining momentum as it bounces around social media platforms, from Facebook to the anything-goes wilds of Gab and Parler.

Johnson says his research shows that communities of pet lovers, parent groups, yoga fans and foodies are increasingly being drawn into the anti-vaccination movement. Misinformation then scurries from one platform to the next, like rodents carrying other extremist ideologies such as QAnon.

"This ecosystem consists of connected platforms. And just as connected yards mean that removing pests and rodents from one yard means they go to the neighbors and then come back using another entry point, so too on the internet," he said.

There are signs of hope. Public confidence in the coronavirus vaccines has grown since November, when three pharmaceutical trials returned positive findings on their efficacy.

But First Draft, a nonprofit that researches online misinformation, says people desperate to understand why their lives have been upended are being preyed upon by bad actors peddling misinformation on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and YouTube.

Debunked theories fall into five main buckets:

  1. Questioning whether people need to take the vaccine.
  2. Accusing pharmaceutical companies and politicians of pushing the vaccines for profit.
  3. Claiming media outlets are in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies.
  4. Suggesting mandatory COVID-19 vaccines will be used for population control.
  5. Spreading baseless allegations that COVID-19 vaccines are made from aborted fetuses.

With so much misinformation gushing into timelines, more than half—57%—of Americans say they have little or no trust in the COVID-19 vaccine information they find on social media, according to Harris Poll data. Nearly 7 in 10 Americans said should remove "any information they consider to be misleading."

Gabby Brauner, 25, is in a dual program studying to be a medical doctor and to get a master's in public health at Stony Brook University.

"I've unfortunately been seeing a lot of vaccine misinformation. It's really easy to fall prey to, especially with social media. An account can seem legitimate but actually be anti-vaxx posting lies, and it is hard to know," she said.

Brauner says she grew so troubled by comment after comment on Facebook that people would not get inoculated, she dived in as a misinformation first responder, rushing to reassure worried users that the COVID-19 vaccine is safe.

Two people consulted with her on their fears that the causes infertility.

"I try to provide information in a gentle way, and I always tell them I'm open to talking about it more," she said. "I think it's important to meet people where they are. We have to show that we understand where they're coming from and not judge them for believing these things."


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