COVID-19 vaccine misinformation still thriving on Facebook

COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories, key nurturers of the public health and security crisis of vaccine hesitancy, are still thriving on Facebook, Instagram and other major social media platforms.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (right) meets former U.S. President Donald J. Trump in the Oval Office of the White House on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019. Photo credit: Joiyce N. Boghosian via the Trump White House Archived official Flickr account. (Public domain)

By OBERT MADONDO@Obiemad | MAY 22, 2021

On Friday, White House coronavirus adviser Andy Slavitt loudly claimed, “We have finally found the one thing that makes us all more attractive: a vaccination,” Reuters reports. A vaccination against COVID-19, that is.

Meanwhile, the The Guardian reports:

Dating Apps are attempting to make getting vaccinations “sexy” in a new partnership with the White House. Tinder, Hinge and OkCupid are amongst the dating apps that are part of the initiative, which will allow users to see if their potential dates are either fully vaccinated, not yet vaccinated or ‘prefer not to disclose’.

The White House is not just getting involved in a curious project seeking to calm people’s anxieties about meeting other people – and potential intimate partners – in the midst of the still-raging global COVID-19 pandemic here.

Vaccine hesitancy

Back in April, CNN reported:

As the pace of daily vaccinations slides in the US, the Biden administration is directing fresh urgency to one of the biggest political challenges it faces in stopping the spread of the coronavirus: tackling vaccine hesitancy, particularly among conservative and rural voters in the Southeast and Mountain West.

With its “sexy” new partnership with dating apps, the White House’s is engaging in what AP reports as “adjusting its message to encourage Americans to get vaccinated”. The Biden-Harris administration wants to open another front in the ongoing effort to nuke the serious problem of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy, also known as anti-vaccination or anti-vax.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines vaccine hesitancy as a “delay in acceptance or refusal of safe vaccines despite availability of vaccination services.” Science News reports:

Vaccines have been met with suspicion and hostility for as long as they have existed. Current opposition to COVID-19 vaccines is just the latest chapter in this long story. The primary driver of vaccine hesitancy throughout history has not been money, selfishness or ignorance. “Vaccine hesitancy has less to do with misunderstanding the science and more to do with general mistrust of scientific institutions and government,” says Maya Goldenberg, a philosophy expert at the University of Guelph, Ontario, who studies the phenomenon.

Anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, lies and alarmist disinformation and misinformation proliferating on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been a key nurturer of COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy in the U.S. and across the world.

Facebook

Back in March, a coalition of a dozen U.S. state attorneys general accused Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey of allowing their companies to accommodate and profit prominent “anti-vaxxers” and COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and disinformation. In a letter (PDF) from Connecticut Attorney General William Tong, signed by the Democratic attorneys general of Delaware, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Virginia, the attorneys general also accused Facebook and Twitter of flagging “pro-vaccine pages and content in ways that have undermined pro-vaccine public education efforts”.

The letter read:

Given ‘anti-vaxxers’ reliance on your platforms, you are uniquely positioned to prevent the spread of misinformation about coronavirus vaccines that poses a direct threat to the health and safety of millions of Americans in our states and that will prolong our road to recovery.

According to award-winning science journalist Melinda Wenner Moyer, anti-vaxxers are “people who are doggedly sharing misinformation and trying to convince other people that vaccines aren’t safe.” Anti-vaxxers do take “vaccine science hostage”.

Meanwhile, in a memo (PDF) issued as Zuckerberg, Dorsey and Google CEO Sundar Pichai were set to testify before a joint hearing on social media’s central role in promoting extremism and disinformation, hosted by the Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee and Communications and Technology Subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives on March 25, 2021, Frank Pallone, Jr., the Democratic chairperson of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, argued that the “substantial amounts of misinformation about COVID-19” that has proliferated on Facebook, Google, and Twitter since the onset of the pandemic had “greatly intensified an already deadly public health crisis.” According to the memo:

At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation regarding the severity of the virus and the effectiveness of alleged cures for COVID-19 was widespread. More recently, COVID-19 disinformation has misrepresented the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines.

The memo further stated that, since Facebook, Twitter and Google “operate some of the largest and most influential online social media platforms reaching billions of users across the globe,” they are “among the largest platforms for the dissemination of misinformation and extremist content. These platforms maximize their reach – and advertising dollars – by using algorithms or other technologies to promote content and make content recommendations that increase user engagement. Users of these platforms often engage more with questionable or provocative content, thus the algorithms often elevate or amplify disinformation and extremist content. Facebook, Google, and Twitter also have access to vast swaths of user data that allows them to microtarget content to users who would be more susceptible to disinformation and extremist content.”

COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is still thriving on Facebook, Instagram and other major social media platforms. In some cases, the platforms are either hosting or promoting vaccine misinformation, and far-right conspiracy theories and troll campaigns.

An investigation by The Markup, published this week, found dozens of “groups or pages that contained anti-vaccine or anti-mask propaganda and misinformation about the pandemic” on Facebook. Data from The Markup’s Citizen Browser project showed that “not only is COVID-19 misinformation still easy to find on Facebook, the company has also continued to recommend health groups to its users, including blatantly anti-vaccine groups and pages explicitly founded to propagate lies about the pandemic.”

Threat to global public health

The U.S. attorneys general letter to Zuckerberg and Dorsey stated that individual anti-vaxxers and groups “spreading falsehoods and misleading Americans about the safety of coronavirus vaccines are threatening the health of our communities, slowing progress in getting our residents protected from the virus, and undermining economic recovery in our states.”

A report (PDF) issued by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in March stated that “the spread and consequence of public health misinformation and disinformation can lead to a range of outcomes that have national security implications and require effective response.”

COVID-19 vaccines hesitancy does not just undermine local efforts to get people vaccinated. It undermines global efforts to overcome the deadly pandemic.

In 2019, the WHO identified vaccine hesitancy as as one of the ten threats to global public health, alongside weak primary health care systems, HIV, “air pollution and climate change” and noncommunicable diseases, such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease, which “are collectively responsible for over 70% of all deaths worldwide, or 41 million people.”

COVID-19 vaccines hesitancy is a threat to global public health.

Below are a few news headlines that highlighted the stubborn virus of COVID-19 misinformation as of during the week ending May 22, 2021:

The Markup: Facebook Said It Would Stop Recommending Anti-Vaccine Groups. It Didn’t

Facebook broadcast a sweeping pledge in a Feb. 8 blog post: It would remove false claims about vaccines from its platform. The declaration followed a series of promises over the preceding months to curb bogus health information on its site, particularly misinformation surrounding the pandemic. This included a commitment in September to stop recommending “health groups” in order to halt the practice of people turning to fellow Facebook users instead of doctors for medical advice. But data from The Markup’s Citizen Browser project shows that not only is COVID-19 misinformation still easy to find on Facebook, the company has also continued to recommend health groups to its users, including blatantly anti-vaccine groups and pages explicitly founded to propagate lies about the pandemic. (Faife and Kerr. The Markup, May 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Texas Tribune: Texas GOP state senator urged use of unproven hydroxychloroquine treatment for COVID-19. Now he’s spreading doubt about vaccines.

State Sen. Bob Hall is not a doctor. The Edgewood Republican graduated from The Citadel with a degree in electrical engineering and, after a successful career in the U.S. Air Force, started an aerospace and defense consulting business. But a lack of medical training hasn’t stopped Hall from promoting misleading — and at times outright false — information about the coronavirus pandemic. Early in the pandemic, he advocated for treating COVID-19 patients with a drug used to treat malaria, even though there was little evidence it worked. Now, he’s promoting skepticism about the coronavirus vaccines, despite widespread scientific consensus that they greatly reduce the risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19. (Mulcahy. The Texas Tribune, May 17, 20215) READ FULL STORY

CNN: How one county in North Carolina is combating vaccine hesitancy

In Onslow County, North Carolina, the public health department has already all but given up on herd immunity. This county has one of the highest rates of vaccine hesitancy in all of North Carolina, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it’s just one of hundreds of places across the country where the vaccine is not catching on, leading some experts to predict the US will never reach herd immunity, despite the advent of widely available and effective vaccines. (McMorris-Santoro and Ellerson. CNN, May 22, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Guardian: Facebook removes 110,000 pieces of Covid misinformation posted by Australian users

Facebook has removed more than 110,000 pieces of Covid-related misinformation generated by Australian accounts in the first year of the pandemic, the company has revealed… In a blog post on Friday, Facebook’s head of public policy in Australia, Josh Machin, revealed that between March and December 2020, Facebook removed more than 14m pieces of misinformation related to Covid-19, including content about fake preventative measures or exaggerated cures. Machin said Facebook had identified 110,000 of those posts came from Australian accounts or pages.

As part of the tech giant’s crackdown on misinformation, Facebook removed the former Liberal turned independent MP Craig Kelly’s Facebook page in April for repeated breaches, including posts about unproven treatments for Covid-19. The celebrity chef Pete Evans’ account was removed in late December for similar reasons. (Taylor. The Guardian, May 21, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The New York Times: They’re Reluctant to Get Vaccinated. Will a Knock on the Door Help?

On a recent morning, Tomas Ramos, a community organizer, and two colleagues rode the elevator to the 21st floor of a tower in the Webster Houses, a public-housing project in the Bronx. Working their way down, one floor at a time, they knocked on every door. Sometimes a voice from inside an apartment called out, “I’m not getting vaccinated.” Other times the person behind the door simply went silent after Mr. Ramos, 34, explained he was signing people up for vaccinations. But on the 13th floor, Biency Paulino answered the door, flanked by her mother and her 5-year-old son, Christopher, who giggled at the sight of strangers during such a lonely year.

“We didn’t leave this apartment for two and a half months,” Ms. Paulino, 30, explained, saying her family had been extra-cautious. Still, she explained, they were unlikely to get vaccinated. It was up to God whether or not she got Covid-19, she said, and whether or not she died.

New York City’s vaccination campaign has been successful by many measures. The city’s second wave is receding fast. Pandemic restrictions are loosening. About 59 percent of the city’s adults have received at least one dose. But Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are getting vaccinated at significantly lower rates than other groups. Citywide, only about 33 percent of Black adults have gotten a vaccine dose. For Hispanic adults, the rate is 42 percent. And demand for the vaccine is dwindling. (Goldstein. The New York Times, May 20, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Hill: Vaccine-hesitant Americans list false side effects among concerns: poll

Coronavirus vaccine-hesitant Americans list multiple false or undocumented side effects — such as DNA alteration — among their reasons for not getting the shot, according to a recent Harris poll reported by Axios on Monday. Among the 1,061 people in the survey who say they are unlikely to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and listed side effects as a concern, 60 percent named blood clots, which have indeed been reported in extremely rare cases. But 24 percent listed infertility, and just as many cited potential birth defects, which are not considered possible from any of the vaccines that have been approved.

Twenty-two percent said they were concerned about potentially getting cancer from their coronavirus vaccine, another false side effect. Approximately 65 percent of baby boomers and half of Generation Z respondents said they were concerned about potential flu-like symptoms, which are possible after the shots. (Oshin. The Hill, May 17, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Guardian: Hot vax summer? Dating apps encourage vaccination

Dating Apps are attempting to make getting vaccinations “sexy” in a new partnership with the White House. Tinder, Hinge and OkCupid are amongst the dating apps that are part of the initiative, which will allow users to see if their potential dates are either fully vaccinated, not yet vaccinated or ‘prefer not to disclose’.

In exchange the apps are giving users premium features. Hinge will offer a free ‘Rose’ to users who set their vaccination status, Tinder will give you a free ‘Super Like’. Both of these ‘premium features’ will tell a potential date that they’re interested, so increasing the chances of matching. According to research from Tinder, you are more likely to get a date if you have been vaccinated: more than half of their Gen Z users says they’re only interested in going on a date with a person who is vaccinated. However, a different study found that Americans under 35 are least likely to say they will get vaccinated. (Elan. The Guardian, May 22, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Conversation: I’m over 50 and hesitant about the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine. Should I wait for Pfizer?

It’s been well documented that there’s a significant level of vaccine hesitancy in the Australian community at the moment. This appears to be a particular issue among adults over 50 concerning the AstraZeneca vaccine, for which this group is now eligible. Hesitancy over the AstraZeneca vaccine, likely to be stemming largely from the very small risk of blood clots, is leading some people to ask: can’t I just wait and get the Pfizer vaccine later?

It didn’t help things when federal health minister Greg Hunt said yesterday there will be enough supply of the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) later in the year for anyone concerned about the AstraZeneca shot. Hunt has since pedalled back on his remarks. Despite the mixed messaging, you shouldn’t wait for a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine later. There are a number of benefits to getting the AstraZeneca jab now. (Vally. The Conversation, May 21, 2021) READ FULL STORY

USA Today: Fact check: COVID-19 vaccines won’t make the common cold or flu ‘extremely lethal’

The claim: The COVID-19 vaccines will make the common cold or flu extremely lethal; vaccine rollout planned around flu. While COVID-19 has been raging on for more than a year, there’s one viral illness the U.S. has not seen much of: the flu. Flu activity has been at a record low, with deaths, cases and hospitalizations far lower than in previous years, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Experts have attributed the decline to measures implemented to stop the spread of the coronavirus, such as lockdowns, social distancing and mask-wearing. But one social media post claims the COVID-19 vaccine rollout may reverse the trend for the coming years.

“The vaxx didnt get mass deployed until cold/flu season was ending for a reason. It will make the common cold/flu extremely lethal,” claims an image shared in a May 9 Instagram post. This lethality, it goes on to suggest, will give rise to a “covid variant” labeled “covid-21” that will appear during the next cold and flu season and cause people to “die of cold-like symptoms.” The image, which appears to be a screenshot from the message board 4chan, has received more than 2,600 interactions on Instagram, according to data provided by CrowdTangle, a social media analytics tool owned by Facebook. (Fauzia. USA Today, May 18, 2021) READ FULL STORY

PolitiFact: No, getting a COVID-19 vaccine won’t expose you to high amounts of electromagnetic radiation

Electromagnetic field detectors have long been associated with tracking and hunting ghosts — and now social media users claim to have found another use for these devices. “EMF reader on a v site” reads the title of a video posted on Facebook, referring to the site of someone’s vaccine injection.(Czopek. PolitiFact, May 21, 2021) READ FULL STORY

The Conversation: Alarmist reporting on COVID-19 will only heighten people’s anxieties and drive vaccine hesitancy

From an ethics perspective, it has been a bad couple of weeks for media coverage of COVID-19. First, there was a highly questionable story in The Australian about China allegedly weaponising coronavirus, with the headline “‘Virus warfare’ in China files” splashed across the front page. The author of the article, Sharri Markson, claims a document written by Chinese scientists and Chinese public health officials in 2015 discussed the weaponisation of a SARS coronavirus. According to the article, the document was headed “The Unnatural Origin of SARS and New Species of Man-Made Viruses as Genetic Bioweapons”. (Muller. The Conversation, May 20, 2021) READ FULL STORY

FactCheck.org: Instagram Posts Spread Texas Lawmaker’s False Claims on Vaccine Testing

The COVID-19 vaccines now authorized for emergency use in the U.S. were subject to the same forms of research routinely expected of all vaccines — even though they were manufactured in record time. In part, the process was sped up thanks to previous, related vaccine research and because some of the early testing stages were consolidated. But a Texas state lawmaker recently claimed, falsely, that animal trials for the vaccines were “stopped” because “the animals were dying.” And his words are now fueling widely viewed social media posts seeking to discredit the vaccines. (Fichera. FactCheck.org., May 19, 2021) READ FULL STORY

USA Today: Fact check: COVID-19 vaccine makers did not halt animal tests, and there were no widespread animal deaths

Nearly 50% of Americans have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. As more people get vaccinated, new COVID-19 infections are falling in every state. But on Instagram, a widely shared video makes it seem like the vaccines are dangerous. Why?

“They stopped testing the shots on animals because all of the animals died & then they directly started experimenting on Humans,” wrote Jimmy Levy in the caption of a May 18 post. Levy, a singer-songwriter and season 18 “American Idol” contestant, deleted the post after USA TODAY reached out. But other versions of the video have tens of thousands of interactions on Facebook and Instagram, according to CrowdTangle, a social media insights tool. (Funke. USA Today, May 20, 2021) READ FULL STORY

Science: Why is the world’s largest COVID-19 vaccine campaign faltering?

On a Sunday morning in early April, as Mumbai was in a daze from the first weeks of a surge of COVID-19 and had instituted nighttime curfews, Baliram Boomkar asked his neighbors in the city’s Kaula Bandar slum whether they wanted a vaccine to protect them or had received one. Some said they had but only because their employers required it. One man said he’d get vaccinated if his company gave him time off to recover from side effects. “COVID is nothing,” he said. “People are only spreading rumors. It’s all a lie.” A woman said she was afraid to get the shot because the clinic might test her for COVID-19, find she’s positive, and then force her to quarantine – as happened last year. “I know I can’t avoid the vaccine, but I want to be the last in the queue,” she said.

“Lots of people [here] don’t believe that COVID exists and that God will provide if something happens,” said Boomkar, who lives in the slum and works as a “barefoot researcher” for the nongovernmental organization Pukar, which conducts health-related studies and also tries to improve living conditions. “They think it’s all politics.” The use of masks, despite the barefoot researchers distributing them and stressing their benefits, remained sparse. (Cohen. Science, May. 19, 2021) READ FULL STORY

Poynter.org: What we know and don’t know about the origins of COVID-19

Confronting Dr. Anthony Fauci at a Senate committee hearing on the COVID-19 pandemic, Sen. Rand Paul argued that the United States collaborated with the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China to make a more deadly coronavirus. The Kentucky Republican made the explosive allegation the day after Fox News talk show host Tucker Carlson made another far-reaching accusation, stating that a recent article “makes it clear that, more than any other single living American, Tony Fauci is responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic.” (Kertscher and Kim. Poynter.org, May 18, 2021) READ FULL STORY

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Obert Madondo
Obert Madondo is an Ottawa-based blogger, photographer, activist, digital rights enthusiast, former political aide, and former international development administrator. Obert is the founder and editor of The Zimbabwean Progressive and The Canadian Progressive, both of which are independent political blogs dedicated to producing fearless, evidence-based, adversarial, unapologetic, progressive and activism-oriented journalism situated right at the intersection of politics, technology and human rights. Follow Obert on Twitter: @Obiemad