Vaccine Insights Hub
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Vaccine Insights Hub

Live insights, intelligence and reporting guidance on emerging health and vaccine misinformation.

Online narrative

CDC plans emergency meeting due to small, but greater than expected number of heart issues in Covid-19 vaccine recipients

A US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committee will hold an emergency meeting on June 18 to discuss a small number of myocarditis cases among young patients, with a possible link to the mRNA-based Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines. While the number of cases reported so far is small and most patients only had mild symptoms, the news has spurred misleading claims on social media. In a Facebook post sharing an article by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson — which misleadingly alleges the vaccines are more dangerous than Covid-19 — Joe Blystone, an Ohio farmer and gubernatorial candidate, suggested to his followers that getting vaccinated against Covid-19 is like “heading down a road of no return.” His post has been shared over 325 times since June 11. Elsewhere, a French-language Twitter account misleadingly claimed that the CDC had “admit” that the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines put teenagers “at high risk of heart inflammation.” The tweet has been shared over 700 times. 

Keenan Chen, June 11

Twitter list

Monitoring the G7 summit

Vaccines are high on the agenda at the G7 summit ongoing in the UK county of Cornwall. Reports that G7 leaders would pledge 1 billion Covid-19 vaccine doses to countries in need have been described by campaigners as a step in the right direction, but also criticized as limited in scale. Use this UK-curated list as a supplement to Boolean queries to track verified updates about the summit.

Chris Looft, June 11

Online tips

G7 vaccine Boolean

Vaccine access is high on the agenda of the latest iteration of the G7. The European Parliament recently voted down a proposal to temporarily lift intellectual property rights for the Covid-19 vaccine. US President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced a plan to pay for 500 million vaccines in other countries. 

Copy and paste this Boolean query into Twitter or Tweetdeck to follow the conversation.

(vaccine OR vaccinations) AND (biden OR putin OR g7 OR nato OR “500 million” OR “tax dollars” OR strategy OR access OR equity OR recovery)

Shaydanay Urbani, June 10

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Top news articles

The news articles in English that mention “vaccine,” “vaccines” or “vaccination” with the most interactions (likes, shares and comments) on Facebook and Twitter in the last 24 hours. Predicted interactions are for the next 24 hours. Sometimes a story with the same headline might appear twice, but this will be two separate publications. (Source: NewsWhip)

Top narratives and themes

Comments lacking evidence that Covid-19 vaccines negatively affect the reproductive system have been picked up by sources of vaccine misinformation.

In an interview with a Canadian broadcaster, Byram Bridle, an immunologist and professor at an Ontario veterinary college, claimed spike proteins from Covid-19 vaccines are “toxins” that enter the bloodstream, suggesting they could cause reproductive issues, including infertility. He claimed the information was found in scientific studies but did not back up his comments with citations or data.

Anti-abortion outlet LifeSiteNews reshared the claims, writing in a piece shared at least 6,969 times on Facebook that the vaccine’s spike protein “gets into the blood where it circulates for several days post-vaccination and then [accumulates] in organs and tissues including the spleen, bone marrow, the liver, adrenal glands, and in ‘quite high concentrations’ in the ovaries.” The piece claims without evidence that the protein poses “potential risks to nursing babies and fertility.”

There is no evidence to support claims that Covid-19 vaccines affect fertility.

 — Lydia Morrish, June 4

 

False conspiracy theory claims of vaccine “genocide”

The Biden administration has set a goal of vaccinating 70 per cent of US adults by July 4. But in a June 2 article packed with conspiracy theories about the Covid-19 pandemic, the disinformation site Natural News not only baselessly claimed that Covid-19 vaccines are accelerating the creation of virus variants but also predicted massive vaccine-related deaths starting on July 5.

“That means that on July 5th, or shortly thereafter, a mass staged event will take place that will begin the massive genocide that is somehow coordinated with the vaccine technology (containing mRNA, spike proteins, HIV, malaria, and more deadly Covid variants),” stated the article, which has also been shared by a Telegram account with over 40,000 followers and a small number of Twitter accounts.

Keenan Chen, June 4

Luc Montagnier, a 2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine winner, fueled the falsehood that Covid-19 vaccines create variants of the virus and will cause deaths.

Montagnier was given the award for leading the team that identified the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), but has since been repudiated by the Institut Pasteur and denounced by the National Academy of Medicine for making claims lacking a scientific basis.

The clip from an interview with Montagnier was posted on alternative video sharing platform Odysee by HOLD-UP Média, the group behind a viral documentary-style video about the pandemic debunked by fact checkers.

In the video, Montagnier misleadingly claims that “the variants come from vaccination,” adding a few minutes later that “you can always see in countries that the curve of vaccinations and the curve of the deaths follow one another.” Yet in many countries, such as England and Israel, it is estimated that vaccinations have averted thousands of deaths. 

In addition, WhatsApp users in India are falsely claiming that Montagnier said that all vaccinated people will die within two years. Another false quote claiming that vaccinated people have “no chance of survival” is also incorrectly being attributed to Montagnier by English-language accounts.

The video is also circulating with the false claim that vaccines create variants, a narrative that has been gaining traction in France for several weeks. It exploits the kernel of truth that slow vaccine uptake in a population can lead to the development of variants. According to an RTBF fact check about the Montagnier interview, the more a virus spreads in a population, the more it mutates. Therefore, vaccinations actually limit the appearance of new variants because they reduce transmissions.

 — Bethan John, May 28

Anti-vaccine sources have picked up on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) review of several dozen reports among young adults and teenagers of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, following vaccination. 

The CDC said the “relatively few” cases, which are no higher than in the general population, may be entirely unrelated to the vaccine. Nevertheless, US anti-vaccine website Children’s Health Defense covered the story, attracting at least 868 Facebook shares. One Twitter account sharing the article suggested without evidence that the chance of dying from Covid-19 was less than the possibility of heart problems. 

The news also spurred misleading claims that the shot offers children no benefit and is dangerous, echoing the prominent and false narrative that children have “no risk” from Covid-19 and that the vaccines are harmful. 

Lydia Morrish, Stevie Zhang, May 25

Social media users are sharing baseless claims after a rare coronavirus variant was detected in the French city of Bordeaux and authorities announced a drive to vaccinate all adults in the affected area.

Florian Philippot, leader of French Euroskeptic party The Patriots, criticized the decision as being taken “without knowing the characteristics of this variant, if the vaccine works against it, and incidentally if the people in the neighborhood agree. Are our leaders all perverted or all stupid ?!” attracting at least 467 shares.

Similarly, a Twitter account said: “emergency neighborhood vaccination, vaccines protect from variants that had not even been detected during [the vaccines’] production, what a sham,” pointing to how a data deficit around the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines on variants can be exploited online. 

According to authorities, there is no reason to believe that this particular variant is resistant to Pfizer or Moderna’s mRNA vaccines. Finally, one Twitter account claimed without evidence that it was a conspiracy to mass-administer AstraZeneca’s Covid-19 vaccine to the general population, despite it being limited to people 55 and older in France. 

Bethan John, May 24

Loaded historical terms are fueling misinformation about vaccines in France and the UK.

Comments by French Health Minister Olivier Véran are being taken out of context to suggest that unvaccinated people will be discriminated against. Véran said: “People who do not get vaccinated will be disadvantaged compared to those who are vaccinated,” as the unvaccinated will not be protected against coronavirus. 

One tweet, shared more than 500 times, called Véran the “Minister of Apartheid,”  while a Yellow Vest Facebook Page said: “Only the collabos (a term chiefly referencing French collaborators with the Nazi regime during World War II) will be rewarded.” 

In the UK, mainstream news outlets including the Telegraph and the Daily Mail are increasingly using the phrase “vaccine refuseniks” to refer to people who have turned down the Covid-19 vaccine. The term originally was used to describe a Jewish person “in the Soviet Union who had been refused permission to emigrate,” but is also used to describe “a person who refuses to cooperate with a system or comply with a law because of a moral conviction.”

 The term is being used by accounts that regularly spread misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines to claim evidence of totalitarian repression. One Twitter account with 46,900 followers shared an image of the headline and asked “…what’s next round us up and stick us in camps?” 

Bethan John, May 18

False claims Pfizer vaccine damages ‘almost every system in the human body’

An Israeli study making baseless claims about Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine is being shared in English and German, fueling false claims.

In the report, The Israeli People’s Committee, an organization promoted by the anti-vaccine group America’s Frontline Doctors, claims it recorded “2,066 reports of adverse events” experienced by vaccinated people in Israel that “indicate damage to almost every system in the human body.” The report baselessly adds: “Never has a vaccine injured so many.”

The document has also been shared by groups misinforming people on Covid-19, including Doctors for Covid Ethics. A German article from Swiss misinformation website Uncut News also shared the study, with the headline “STUDY: Pfizer vaccine causes catastrophic damage to every system in the body.” Social media users, including UK anti-vaccine user Tess Summers, have shared the piece.

These claims build on anti-vaccine narratives surrounding the Pfizer vaccine since US regulators recently authorized it for use in children ages 12-15.

Lydia Morrish, May 14

Hundreds gather for “freedom” protests in Australia, but audience for anti-vaccine content swells online

Demonstrators in multiple countries joined “freedom” rallies Saturday as part of an ongoing campaign by “Free Citizens from Kassel,” the German-language group behind global protests that attracted anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine campaigners in March.

In Australia, hundreds participated at marches in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Perth. But the number of people involved swelled online: social media posts documenting the events received tens of thousands of views and engagements.

One video of the Melbourne rally that received 34,000 views and 2,300 reactions showed demonstrators carrying placards such as: “Say NO to vaccine passports,” “Pharma is for wealth not health” and “No mandatory vaccination.”

A Facebook live video of the Sydney rally that received 4,000 views included a speech from former professional boxer Anthony Mundine and an interview with federal MP Craig Kelly, who has been banned from Facebook for sharing misinformation.

Federal MP George Christensen attended the Brisbane rally and shared a Facebook post opposing a form of “vaccine passport” that received 2,700 reactions, and more than 800 shares and comments. The Australian Vaccination-risks Network also promoted video footage and photos of the rallies, attracting thousands of views and likes.

Lucinda Beaman, May 19

 

A misleading video featuring Didier Raoult, a French doctor who has promoted false claims about hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment, is fueling misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines. 

Raoult claims that the vaccines don’t reduce virus circulation and that they increase the probability of contracting Covid-19. He based his claims on patients observed at the Marseille hospital where he works, which he says is a suitably representative sample.

Mounting evidence suggests that Covid-19 vaccines reduce transmission, and the misleading claim that receiving the vaccine makes one more susceptible to contracting Covid-19 has been circulating online for several weeks.

The video — which has garnered at least 113,880 YouTube views since it was published May 11 — is gaining traction in French-language spaces. Accounts are sharing the video to undermine Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness and to promote the false claims, including that mRNA vaccines are “gene therapy,” in one example that attracted at least 310 retweets. 

Bethan John, May 12

Tourism agencies in Thailand are reportedly selling “vaccine vacations” to those who can afford it.

They are primarily selling trips to the US because of the widespread availability of vaccines, which has led to tourists from Canada and Latin America to also seek vaccination in the US.

Thais seeking to do so have been warned to contact the Foreign Ministry before paying for the trip, because regulations in different states vary and some states have taken steps to bar vaccine tourism. Agencies have also been warned not to advertise these trips as “vaccine tourism” but rather as “health tours.”

Advertisements have also been posted on Facebook by pages for “vaccications” to the Maldives, United Arab Emirates, Serbia, Russia and Singapore. The travel information these posts provide is not wholly supported by official travel advice from the respective countries, and makes baseless speculations about policies.

Comments under these posts show an interest in these trips, especially as participants attempt to choose which vaccine to get.

Stevie Zhang, May 7

The government’s confirmation that high school students in England will not have to wear masks from May 17 onward has fueled a resurgence of misinformation and anti-mask rhetoric. 

Scores of social media users suggested the current requirements had amounted to “child abuse,” with parent campaign group UsForThem tweeting: “Covering children’s noses and mouths is abhorrent and wrong.” 

In an interview with one of UsForThem’s co-founders, prominent radio presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer, a frequent critic of Covid-19 restrictions and source of misinformation, suggested that wearing masks doesn’t limit Covid-19 transmission. “Everyone will die if the kids take them off this week but on Monday miraculously they won’t,” she said sarcastically in a broadcast with at least 11,000 views on Twitter. 

Lydia Morrish, May 11

Misinformation is spreading about the surge in Covid-19 cases in Seychelles, the “world’s most-vaccinated nation.”

The remote 115-island nation has introduced new restrictions amid a surge in Covid-19 cases, prompting speculation and misleading claims about the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines. The Sinopharm and AstraZeneca vaccines are the main ones being used in the Seychelles. 

Although global regulators have found the AstraZeneca vaccine to be highly effective in preventing serious illness and death, data on the Sinopharm Covid-19 vaccine is being reviewed by the World Health Organization. A number of prominent vaccine and lockdown skeptics — such as Australian MP Craig Kelly and French researcher Alexandra Henrion-Caude, all of whom have spread Covid-19 misinformation — are circulating stories about rising cases in Seychelles. According to Bloomberg, local officials have attributed the recent surge to people taking fewer precautions against the virus. 

Lucy Swinnen, May 6

Accounts in French-speaking online spaces are falsely claiming that vaccinated people are a health risk to the unvaccinated simply by coming into contact with them.

Silvano Trotta, a French conspiracy theorist, shared this text with his 34,077 Telegram followers: “Do you want to stay healthy? Stay away from vaccinated people!” The text is a translated excerpt from an article by America’s Frontline Doctors, an organization that has repeatedly shared false claims about the pandemic. The piece claims without evidence that a number of side effects such as blood clots “have been reported in persons who are near persons who have been vaccinated.” 

Similarly, “Peter Moore – ThePlot911,” a French-Canadian Facebook Page, shared an article from a conspiracy theorist website titled: “Were COVID-19 vaccines designed to spread to unvaccinated people?” The baseless claim references a 2018 report from the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security in which the authors explore “self-spreading vaccine” technology. 

As of September 2020, self-disseminating vaccines have not been developed in humans and there is no evidence the technology is being actively worked on. The article suggesting that Covid-19 vaccines could be self-spreading uses a line in the document that acknowledges the risks of self-spreading vaccine to falsely imply that Covid-19 vaccines are a danger to people who haven’t received them.

  — Bethan John, May 4

A single dose of the Pfizer or AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine can cut household transmission by up to half, according to a new Public Health England study awaiting peer review. The preliminary findings are fueling anti-lockdown narratives in the UK. 

TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp, who has criticized the prospect of “vaccine passports,” baselessly claimed that Covid-19 is being used as a pretext to stop people visiting loved ones in hospitals and nursing homes, adding that “they need a new excuse” in one Twitter post. 

Other social media users made misleading claims about lockdown measures in light of the study, including that “draconian and inhuman” guidance and quarantine rules are no longer necessary. 

Previous studies suggesting that Covid-19 vaccines cut transmission were also used in anti-lockdown narratives alongside misleading arguments.

 — Lydia Morrish, April 28

Confirmation on April 28 from UK transport secretary Grant Shapps that the country’s main NHS app, used to book vaccine appointments, would double as a digital Covid-19 status certificate for international travel is fueling misleading and conspiratorial narratives. 

Hugo Talks, a website that frequently posts conspiracy theory videos, shared a clip on YouTube falsely claiming the “freedom passport” would be based on the separate NHS Covid-19 test-and-trace app, which has been shunned by Covid 19-skeptic communities in part because of its built-in location tracking features. “The plan is for it to become a 24-7 surveillance social credit system,” he claimed in the video, which has been viewed at least 16,500 times.

Anti-lockdown social media users also made unfounded claims that using the NHS app for vaccine certification will be a precursor to domestic “vaccine passports” for visiting pubs and restaurants, as part of a government plan to control the population. “How long before you have to show your vax to get onto a flight, get a job, or even go for a beer?” tweeted former MEP Martin Daubney. Twitter user “Brook Bay Pirate” baselessly claimed the app will “eventually, inevitably be extended to controlling the activities of the plebs inside the UK too.” 

Although the UK government is reviewing plans for domestic vaccine identification, the government is reportedly prioritizing Covid-19 status certificates for larger, crowded events including concerts.

 — Lydia Morrish, April 30

Influential podcast host Joe Rogan has argued that young people should not take the Covid-19 vaccine, drawing on and amplifying a prominent anti-vaccine narrative. 

In an April 23 episode of “The Joe Rogan Experience,” which attracted considerable attention yesterday, Rogan said that he believed “vulnerable” people should get vaccinated against Covid-19 but then added, “[I]f you’re like 21 years old, and you say to me, should I get vaccinated? I’ll go no.” Rogan later said that “both my children got the virus. It was nothing.” 

Rogan signed a deal in May 2020 with Spotify worth over $100 million, and by December his show was the most popular podcast on the platform.

While he correctly observed in his April 23 episode that younger people tend to face lower risks from Covid-19, the comments present a misleading view of the cost-benefit analysis of vaccination. Despite Rogan’s anecdote about his children having Covid-19, young people are not free from risk. An analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of 2.8 million Covid-19 patients age 24 and under found that some 2.5 percent required hospitalization.

An emergency room physician in Michigan recently told The New York Times, “I am putting more patients in their 20s and 30s and 40s on oxygen and on life support than at any other time in this pandemic,” amid a surge in infections in the state. And as institutions such as the Mayo Clinic have observed, even patients with mild symptoms can face long-lasting effects, which are still not fully understood. 

Rogan’s comments come at a critical moment of debate over vaccinating young people. An increasing number of universities are mandating Covid-19 vaccines ahead of the fall semester, drawing the attention of those who promote anti-vaccine misinformation. For example, in response to news of a planned vaccine mandate by Maryland’s public university system, former Republican congressional candidate Kimberly Klacik said in a tweet shared at least 1,400 times, “There is still no word if the vaccine will lead to infertility issues. This decision could be devastating,” drawing on false claims about Covid-19 vaccines and fertility. 

Chris Looft, April 28

US health authorities on Friday cleared the way for resuming the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine, but misleading narratives about the vaccine persist. 

In a joint statement on April 23, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration said that despite reports of rare but severe blood clotting disorders in six women who received the vaccine, the benefits of the shot outweigh the “known and potential risk.” The agencies also confirmed their awareness of nine additional cases since the pause, all among women. 

Familiar narratives resurfaced in response to the CDC and FDA’s joint statement. One unverified user posted a tweet that read in part, “I’m not using any of them, I’m staying blood clot free.” The post that was shared at least 340 times. On Facebook, the top comment on a Breitbart post linking to its article about the agencies’ recommendation read in part, “Of course!!! They don’t care about your health!! There are billions of dollars involved!! Wake up!!!” 

The resumption of the J&J vaccine comes at a time when the impact of misleading anti-vaccine narratives could have a larger impact on public health. To date, vaccine supply has been the main impediment to uptake. But some public health experts are increasingly concerned about decreased demand for the shot, and vaccine hesitancy could be a key factor, according to a recent analysis by The Washington Post.

 — Chris Looft, April 26

Social media users in France are pushing the hashtag #touchepasamesenfants (don’t touch my children) following a report in the satirical newspaper Le Canard Enchaîné that the government is considering vaccinating children age 10 and up by the end of the summer.

The Twitter hashtag was launched by Fabrice Di Vizio, the lawyer of Didier Raoult, a prominent French doctor who promotes false claims about hydroxychloroquine as a Covid-19 treatment. Di Vizio’s tweets encouraged others to share the hashtag widely, and claimed without evidence that “mandatory vaccination is also in the pipeline.” 

The hashtag became a lighting rod for misinformation and conspiracy theories, with accounts picking up the “mandatory vaccination” claim and the false narrative that approved vaccines are “experimental.” “On Twitter, it only takes two active campaigners to get a hashtag trending,” said Raphael Grably, a tech journalist, referring to Di Vizio and Francis Lalanne, a French singer who frequently shares pandemic misinformation and promoted #touchepasamesenfants. The case illustrates again how susceptible Twitter’s trending function is to being gamed by accounts seeking to promote conspiracy theories and misinformation.

The topic of children and vaccines is also fueling false narratives in other countries. News last Friday that a Stanford University trial would see children as young as 6 months old receive the Pfizer vaccine prompted social media users to baselessly claim child abuse. An open letter from 100 Israeli doctors opposing the vaccination of children similarly led to the misleading claim the vaccine is “rushed.” The development of Covd-19 vaccines occurred at a record pace because of the nature of the global crisis, but corners were not cut in testing the safety and efficacy of approved vaccines in the US, Europe and elsewhere.

Bethan John, April 22

On April 9, Pfizer France spokesman David Lepoittevin told French news outlet Le Parisien that the company had begun human clinical trials of two Covid-19 medications.

Four days later, the director of the Pasteur Institute — a leading French vaccine and infectious disease research center — said he hoped to kick off human trials for the institute’s own Covid-19 medication this month.

Despite the fact that both organizations are developing antiviral-type treatments, their announcements were subjected to very different narratives on social media.

Reports related to the Pasteur Institute received an overwhelmingly positive reaction on social media, with many users posting messages of support for the institute and expressing their “confidence” in its team.

By contrast, Pfizer’s announcement triggered narratives that framed the pharmaceutical giant as purely motivated by money and its products as unsafe.

This example provides yet another indication of how significant trust in key actors and institutions is when it comes to attitudes toward drugs and vaccines. It may also suggest that domestic research foundations, universities and other not-for-profit organizations may hold an advantage over multinational pharmaceutical companies that are naturally more susceptible to accusations of financial opportunism.

Seb Cubbon, April 14

After two US health agencies recommended pausing the administration of the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine pending an analysis, conspiracy theories and vaccine-skeptic narratives took off.

In a joint statement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Food and Drug Administration said that out of the over 6.8 million people who had received the J&J shot, six of them, all women, had reportedly suffered the serious side effect of cerebral venous sinus thrombosis (CVST), a type of blood clot.
The news quickly captured the attention of those curious about vaccines online; Google Trends data suggested that on the morning of April 13, vaccine-related searches were dominated by interest in Johnson & Johnson and the possible side effect.
In some circles, the J&J shot, a viral vector vaccine, was misleadingly compared to its mRNA-based counterparts from Pfizer and Moderna in the form of conspiracy theories drawing on a legacy of regulatory dereliction in the pharmaceutical sector.

In a statement, former President Donald Trump denounced the CDC and FDA’s recommendation, suggesting without evidence that “perhaps all of this was done for politics or perhaps it’s the FDA’s love for Pfizer.” A similar sentiment also appeared in several posts on 4chan’s /pol message board prior to Trump’s statement, and in multiple tweets, such as one from an unverified user with over 250,000 followers that read in part, “It’s almost like they want us to only have the option of taking an mRNA vax…(Moderna and Pfizer).”
Just as the relationship between pharmaceutical companies and regulators drove conspiracy theories, another anti-Johnson & Johnson narrative owing to alleged negligence by the company resurfaced. Comedian Whitney Cummings tweeted to over 1.4 million followers, “Wait the company who put asbestos in baby powder for years didn’t nail it this time?” Similar comments were echoed in other posts.

— Keenan ChenChris Looft, April 14

Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine has been the subject of misinformation and vaccine hesitancy in the US.

Last week, health officials in Colorado, North Carolina, Iowa and Georgia noted small numbers of minor adverse effects such as fainting and dizziness at vaccination sites, some of which were briefly shut down. Georgia’s public health commissioner said there is no reason to believe the J&J vaccine was the cause, suggesting heat could have been the reason. 

Separately, the European Medicines Agency said it is reviewing the company’s shot after four cases of blood clotting disorders, one of them fatal, were reported in the US following vaccination. The Food and Drug Administration said it had “not found a causal relationship with vaccination.”

The EMA’s announcement on J&J comes amid the troubled rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine, which the European regulator is also investigating for potential links to extremely rare cases of blood clotting disorders. The sometimes-confusing public messaging around the AstraZeneca vaccine has increased vaccine hesitancy in France and other countries. Last week, tens of thousands of people in Madrid skipped vaccine appointments. 

Chris Looft, April 12

News of cabinet minister Michael Gove’s review into “Covid certification” prompted prominent lockdown critic Toby Young to share a post from his blog Lockdown Sceptics to claim, without evidence, that “anyone with an authoritarian streak who sees themselves as an agent of our new bio-security state” could access people’s medical records through the app.

The prospect of a “vaccine passport” app has also been used to promote an April 24 “unite for freedom” rally. An official Stand Up X group, now called SUX after several of the group’s Facebook communities were removed, shared a Daily Mail report on a possible “pub passport” app, calling on people to attend the protest and calling “vaccine passports” “absurd.” 

Lockdown critic James Melville also argued a “vaccine passport” “makes no sense” if the vaccinated can still transmit the virus, in a post with at least 1,100 retweets. However, a recent preprint study from the University of Glasgow suggested that approved Covid-19 vaccines reduce transmission by more than half.

Lydia Morrish, March 29

An acknowledgement by Biden administration officials that they are working on a “vaccine passport” plan is being misleadingly framed as a revelation of an unprecedented government takeover.

Five officials, speaking anonymously, told The Washington Post that the White House is coordinating an effort by federal agencies and private businesses to develop standards toward an app or document used to prove immunity before, for example, boarding a flight. 

Several comments on the QAnon online message board Great Awakening connected the news to conspiracy theories, including the “Great Reset,” which holds, among other things, that “vaccine passports” will be used as part of a plan by global elites for population control.

Elsewhere, some critics of lockdown measures suggested that a potential “vaccine passport” would be used to track recipients, as opposed to merely serving as a record of immunity. This language was used in a tweet by Disclose.tv, a known purveyor of information disorder, receiving over 5,000 shares. Amid the climate of skepticism — and conspiracy theorizing — about a “vaccine passport,” the Post’s article noted the White House’s aim to “avoid the perception of a government mandate to be vaccinated.”

Wariness of backlash against perceived government overreach is unsurprising. After New York state rolled out its own “vaccine passport” program March 26, lawyer and anti-surveillance activist Albert Fox Cahn said the state’s passport app was potentially insecure, Gothamist reported.

Chris Looft

When it comes to reporting on vaccines, headlines are critically important.

Headlines from both fringe and mainstream media that misleadingly suggested causal links between Covid-19 vaccines and deaths have already generated significant engagement on social media and may have unnecessarily amplified vaccine fears. But after the launch of an investigation into the death of a young student in France who had received a Covid-19 vaccine ten days prior, certain French outlets led their reports with the headline “A Student from Nantes dies of thrombosis after an AstraZeneca jab,” thereby omitting vital context.

Links and screenshots of these headlines were then included in posts by multiple Facebook Pages and users that portrayed the event as “yet another vaccine death” or used it as “proof” that Covid-19 vaccines are dangerous. Some of these Facebook posts have generated more than 1,000 shares. 

Headlines are often the only component of an article readers pay attention to before sharing, and have an outsized role on social media because of their position on “preview links” contained within social media posts. 

Seb Cubbon, March 23

An Australian Defence Force (ADF) spokesperson has dismissed a misleading claim circulating online that military personnel who refuse to be vaccinated will be discharged.

In a statement to First Draft on March 17, the ADF spokesperson said: “In Defence, COVID-19 vaccinations are voluntary and every vaccine will be given through an informed consent process, where individuals are informed of both the risks and benefits of vaccination. No ADF member is vaccinated against their will or without their consent.”

Another misleading claim states naval officers who turn down the vaccine will be barred from deployment. The ADF said while “members who do not wish to receive the COVID-19 vaccine may be restricted from being able to perform certain roles,” that only applies to “high-risk settings where the risk of infection from COVID-19 is high.” This screenshot has also been shared by a profile on Instagram that links to an American pro-Trump site.

What was perceived as limited coverage on mild Covid-19 side effects reported on the HMAS Sydney last week also led to an accusation in fringe spaces of a defense or media coverup.

Esther Chan, Jack Berkefeld,

March 18

A video fragment that appears to show a man having a medical episode at a vaccine center in Hong Kong is fueling misleading claims about vaccine safety.

The 42-second video was posted in a Hong Kong-based Facebook Group with more than 100,000 followers, and has been viewed tens of thousands of times on YouTube since it was uploaded March 21.

A number of commenters speculated that the man had received the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine, while others described vaccines as “problematic” and falsely stated that people who got vaccinated were “sentenced to death.” A Hong Kong government spokesperson said the video shows an incident, documented in a government press release, of a 35-year-old man having a seizure at the Yuen Long vaccination center after having received a Pfizer Covid-19 vaccination, adding that the man left hospital after treatment.

Many countries have approved the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine after clinical trials found it effective and no safety issues were reported.

Esther Chan, March 22

Moderna has started trials of its Covid-19 vaccine in children ages 6 months to 11 years in the US and Canada.

Planning to test around 6,750 children, the company is the first in the US to test the vaccine in infants, the BBC reports. But the study has sparked misinformation and conspiratorial posts on social media, with many warning of the safety of the vaccine in children.

 Attracting 172 retweets, a US Twitter account called “ProudArmyBrat,” which has some 14,600 followers, wrote: “What parent in their right mind would hand their child over as a rat for an experiment?” Scores of other users echoed similar claims, including one with 15,600 followers who wrote in a post with nearly 60 retweets: “Who would volunteer their children to be Guinea pigs to this experiment?”

In the UK, anti-lockdown campaigner Simon Dolan implied on March 17 that authorities aren’t concerned about the outcomes of vaccinations, writing in a tweet with 654 retweets and more than 2,000 likes: “No-one knows the medium and long term side effects of the experimental mRNA ‘vaccine’. No-one knows the effects it might have on babies, children, pregnant women.”

Anti-vaccine newspaper The Light claimed the shot was “experimental” and insinuated that Moderna is incapable of rolling out a safe vaccine. In a tweet with more than 130 retweets, it stated: “The 1st time a US vaccine maker is to test its products on infants. Alarming given Moderna has never produced a vaccine for humans before.”

Lydia Morrish, March 17

Mistrust and confusion are circulating in Hong Kong after three people died after receiving China’s Sinovac Covid-19 vaccine.

An expert committee said the deaths were not directly related to Sinovac, with Hong Kong’s Secretary for Food and Health, Sophia Chan, saying officials believe the benefits of vaccination outweigh the risks despite suspected serious adverse events. China’s state-run Global Times also reported that adverse events were “within the expected range” following news of a second post-vaccine death.

One high-engagement Facebook post asked, “If this continues, will the number of vaccine deaths supersede that of Covid-19?” Antipathy toward Beijing following more than a year of popular anti-government protests in the city has contributed to public skepticism about Chinese vaccines. Sinovac last month announced Phase III trial data conducted in Brazil and Turkey with a 50.65% efficacy rate for all cases.

Esther Chan, March 9

England embarked on the tough journey out of lockdown, with the first easing of restrictions coming March 8 as schools reopened.

All the remaining restrictions are scheduled to be lifted by June 21. But some anti-lockdown advocates and conspiracy theory accounts are seeing this measured approach as an assault on freedoms, given that more than 22.5 million people in the UK have already had their first Covid-19 vaccine dose.

 

Claims that the UK’s lockdown should be lifted sooner rather than later, given the relative success of the country’s vaccine rollout program, have fueled scores of anti-lockdown claims. Dozens of accounts insist without evidence that the lockdown will “never end.”

 

UK anti-lockdown campaigner Simon Dolan of Keep Britain Free falsely claimed that people who believe the “‘vaccine’ would give them their lives back, I’m afraid you’ve been had,” referencing comments by Dr. Anthony Fauci that the vaccine doesn’t mean a “free pass” to travel. He went on to suggest the vaccine is part of a global conspiracy, adding: “The vaccine isn’t the end game here – its [sic] just another step along the way….” 


Lydia Morrish, March 11

The far-right international newspaper The Epoch Times is sharing disinformation about adverse vaccine effects in an article published March 6.

The outlet reported a misleading number of vaccine-related deaths using data from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS), a database hosted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the US Department of Health and Human Services. 

VAERS is an open database that collects testimonials voluntarily, without verification. According to the HHS website, the database may be “incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable,” a clear warning against its reliability. 

The Epoch Times article is especially effective as a disinformation vector as it presents the VAERS data in easy, downloadable spreadsheets. This makes disinformation accessible, adjustable and easy to share. 

The article has been shared on Facebook nearly 17,500 times since its publication. The top shares on Facebook come from François Asselineau, a French politician and president of the Euroskeptic party Union Populaire Républicaine, and Preston Phillips, a news anchor from a Seattle-based Sinclair television station. Similar posts are also in Spanish-language Telegram Channels.

Daniel Acosta-Ramos, March 8

UK Chancellor Rishi Sunak has unveiled Budget 2021, with the country’s furlough program, paying employees who can’t work because of the pandemic up to 80% of their wages, reportedly extended until September.

This, alongside declining Covid-19 cases and the vaccination of more than 20 million people, is leading many to claim the UK will remain locked down after June — the target date in the government’s post-lockdown “roadmap”.

Simon Dolan, founder of the anti-lockdown campaign Keep Britain Free (KBF), wrote that keeping people out of work was “tragic” with jobs “long gone” in a post with at least 540 retweets, while a pro-KBF account wrote: “What the hell is the government playing at? Get people back to work.”

Dozens of accounts contrasted news around the budget with the relative success of the UK’s Covid-19 vaccine rollout. Journalist Isabel Oakeshott wrote in a tweet with at least 780 retweets: “What’s the point of extending furlough till autumn when we could just open up the economy? We have a world leading vaccination programme.” 

 — Lydia Morrish, March 3

Social media users are pointing out that Johnson & Johnson, whose Covid-19 vaccine has been granted emergency authorization, has in the past been forced to pay out settlements to people who contracted cancer after using the company’s baby powder products.

Posts using the lawsuits to drum up suspicion about the safety of the vaccine can be found as far back as March 2020. For example, on February 27, 2021, Nurse Jessica Sites, a Facebook Page for “funny nursing content” with over 107,000 followers, posted, “Serious question… Johnson & Johnson screwed up their baby powder is anyone seriously considering their vaccine?” The post received at least 1,600 interactions and 386 shares.

Madelyn Webb, March 2

False claims are circulating online that Australians won’t be able to know which Covid-19 vaccines they will receive. 

Australia’s drug regulator does set strict guidelines banning healthcare providers from identifying in advertising which brand of vaccine they administer. However, doctors will still be allowed to tell individuals which brand they are receiving.

A meme falsely claiming that the ban is in place because people will choose Pfizer over AstraZeneca was circulating in an anti-vaccine/anti-lockdown group with 21,200 followers. A prominent anti-vaccine activist posted conspiracy theory questions on Instagram, saying people will not know which “biological experimental injection” they are being given.

Businesses involved in the rollout can use government-approved materials but may not insert brand names.

Anne Kruger, Jack Berkefeld, March 2

Popular skeptic of UK lockdowns and critic of the prospect of Covid-19 “vaccine passports” Peter Hitchens wrote about receiving the vaccine in the Mail on Sunday.

This fueled uproar from his fans and vaccine-hesitant supporters.

“For me, the vaccination was a gloomy submission to a new world of excessive safety and regulation,” he wrote, adding that he was “more or less forced to have an immunisation I would not normally have bothered with” to increase his chances of being able to travel.

Scores of social media users criticized his move, with some claiming he “lied” to his followers about the vaccine before getting it and questioning why he received the jab despite it not being clear if and when “vaccine passports” would be introduced. “Literally everything you have been arguing for now means nothing,” one wrote in a tweet.

Gareth Icke, son of prominent conspiracy theorist David Icke, wrote: “The more that comply, the smaller the pool that don’t.” The case highlights how celebrity critics of lockdown measures and vaccine certificates disappoint their followers by opting for the shot.

Lydia Morrish, March 1

Reports that a new coronavirus variant has been detected in the UK are fueling a familiar baseless narrative that its emergence is being used as part of a government and media agenda to promote lockdowns. 

In response to news that six Britons have tested positive for a variant (P1) first found in Brazil, one user tweeted: “Conveniently rolling out a new variant after people enjoyed the sunny weather this weekend?” adding: “I see you @BorisJohnson. We all see you.” It attracted at least 680 retweets. Similarly, an account with 88,200 followers also dismissed concerns that the P1 variant may be more resistant to vaccines: “It’s all fake and planned.”

Dozens of tweets with lower engagement also referenced the narrative that the government and media are using scaremongering tactics to delay the lifting of lockdown, outlined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week. First Draft also found a version of this unfounded narrative when a new variant was detected in the UK this past December.

Bethan John, March 1

A report from Salt Lake City’s Fox 13 about Covid-19 vaccines causing potential false positives during mammograms is being used out of context to argue that these vaccines may be causing breast cancer in recipients.

The article was shared widely on Facebook Pages such as Heidi St. John’s “The Busy Mom,” “Health Freedom Minnesota” and elsewhere. The Fox 13 reporting recommends patients receive a mammogram before being vaccinated or to alert doctors if they have received a Covid-19 vaccine.

No connection between the Covid-19 vaccines and breast cancer was made in the original article.

 

Image: Subconsci Productions/Creative Commons

Jaime Longoria, February 26

Misinformation that proof of vaccination against Covid-19 will be required for people to enter pubs and venues in the UK. is spreading alongside narratives around creeping totalitarianism.

While “vaccine passports” might become “inevitable” for international travel, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said this week, he also ruled out domestic vaccine identification. However, social media accounts are suggesting without evidence that proof of vaccination will be required for daily activities once lockdown is lifted. Some falsely suggested vaccines would de facto be made compulsory through the rollout of “vaccine passports.” 

In France, discussions about “vaccine passports” are fueling similar misleading claims. Silvano Trotta, a prominent YouTube personality who regularly shares conspiracy theories about the pandemic, said in one tweet that the passport will be a precursor to microchips.

Lydia Morrish, Bethan John; February 17

A hospital in northwestern France temporarily halted its vaccination of healthcare workers because of the prevalence of flu-like side effects.

A specialist said that the workers’ median age — 34 — meant their bodies produced a stronger immune response than in older individuals. The news is fueling confusion and misinformation online, with several high-engagement posts raising alarm about the vaccine and potential side effects without context.

The National Agency for the Safety of Medicines and Health Products said the side effects were not abnormal and the vaccination rollout at the hospital would continue today.

Bethan John, February 15

Anti-lockdown and conspiracy theory-spouting accounts are citing UK government data, including five reports of blindness following Covid-19 vaccination, to spread misleading claims.

Simon Dolan, founder of anti-lockdown campaign Keep Britain Free, quoted a misleading article on a website that frequently shares health misinformation. It alleged that people were “now blind.” Dolan’s tweet was shared more than 1,070 times on Facebook, CrowdTangle data shows. The “overwhelming majority” of these “Yellow Card” reports — submitted by members of the public or health professionals and which are not always confirmed — relate to injection-site reactions and generalized symptoms. The data also does not indicate the length and severity of the effects.

— Lydia Morrish, February 15

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Insights on vaccine hesitancy

Insights about vaccine hesitancy and misinformation to inform your reporting, campaigns and responses online.

Insights on vaccine hesitancy

The role of structural racism

The historical treatment of communities of color by medical institutions is critical to understanding vaccine hesitancy. Many have experienced discrimination in access to medical care, having their ailments taken seriously and addressed, and as in the case of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, some communities have experienced medical experimentation by the state.

These injustices are often exploited by disinformation campaigns, which play into anxieties about communities of color being treated as test cases. First Draft’s Claire Wardle and internet researcher Renée DiResta also note that “the black community has been targeted with the conspiracy theory that young black males are disproportionately vulnerable to autism if they receive the MMR vaccine.”

In a compelling personal account, an epidemiologist explains how structural racism has made her question immunization programs despite her expertise.

Vaccine hesitancy across countries

Ipsos Mori has released its latest findings in a public poll on vaccine intent. Every country measured has seen an increase in people’s intent to get vaccinated. Learn more in its report.

The percentage of respondents who agree with the statement, “If a vaccine for Covid-19 were available, I would get it.” Source: Ipsos Mori, Jan 2021

The psychology of vaccine hesitancy

A study across 24 countries found vaccine hesitancy was highest among those who:

  • embraced conspiratorial thinking
  • had reactance against authority
  • reported disgust toward blood and needles
  • had strong individualistic or hierarchical worldviews

These findings indicate communication tactics that may backfire and increase hesitancy among many, such as imagery of syringes and authoritative messages. The moral values of “purity” and “liberty” have also been linked with anti-vaccination views, indicating that vaccine hesitancy isn’t just about facts.

The 3 C’s

The World Health Organization uses a “3 C’s model” to explain vaccine hesitancy:

Confidence: lack of trust in the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, the system and people delivering them, and the motivations of policy makers

Convenience: when vaccines are seen as taking too much effort to access

Complacency: when vaccines are considered unnecessary

A (very) brief introduction to vaccine hesitancy

Opposition to vaccination can be traced to the very introduction of vaccines, such as the 1866 founding in Britain of the National Anti-Vaccination League, culminating in an 1885 protest that reportedly attracted up to 100,000 people. Hesitancy is informed by personal experiences, trust, religious and moral convictions, perceptions of risk and misinformation. Today, vaccine hesitancy is a spectrum characterized by professor Julie Leask as a five-layer pyramid of acceptance:

  1. the “refuser” of all vaccines (<2%)
  2. the “late or selective vaccinator” (2–27%)
  3. the “hesitant” (20–30%)
  4. the “cautious acceptor” (25–35%)
  5. the “unquestioning acceptor” (30–40%)

The role of motherhood

Before the pandemic, anti-vaccine communities were mainly focused on women, particularly new mothers.

One study found that 89% of people posting anti-vaccine comments online were women. Another found that “anti-vaccination pages on Facebook reflect a highly ‘feminized’ movement,” with 73% of active members being women. Researchers concluded that the contemporary anti-vaccine movement is “now, more than ever, ‘a mother’s question.’”

Insights on vaccine misinformation

Facts vs. identities

Vaccine hesitancy is affected by misinformation, but also by identity and values. 

In English-language communities, the value of civil liberties is particularly important: One study finds that followers of anti-vaccine Facebook Pages articulate their views in terms of anti-authoritarian values and freedom. A study of anti-vaccine content on Facebook reached a similar conclusion, with the authors arguing that that “[f]raming vaccine refusal as a civil right [issue] allows vaccine opponents to sidestep the science, and instead debate about values, especially the value of freedom of choice.”

Consider how these values can be engaged with and challenged; for example, by reconsidering freedom at the level of the community rather than the individual.

6 types of vaccine narratives

Narratives are powerful in shaping attitudes and behaviors and when it comes to vaccines, narratives can be broken down into six main types. Read more in Under The Surface.

Political & economic motives: Trust in the political and economic motives of key figures, governments, institutions and corporations involved with vaccines. 

Safety, efficacy & necessity: Whether vaccines are perceived to be safe, effective or needed.

Development, provision & access: The progress and challenges of vaccine development, including trials as well as who takes part, when and how.

Conspiracy theory: Well-established or novel conspiracy theories involving vaccines.

Liberty & freedom: How vaccines are perceived to affect civil liberties and personal freedom.

Morality & religion: Moral and religious concerns around vaccines, such as their composition and how they are tested.

Why data deficits are so important

The Royal Society and the British Academy concluded in a review of the literature on vaccine misinformation that vaccine hesitancy “is not the result of misinformation, but rather an information and knowledge deficit.”

Deficits are created when people are seeking credible information but not finding it. Sometimes this is because of unanswered questions, which create a vacuum for information, and that’s when misinformation rushes in and is prioritized in search results.

In your research, look for sincere questions and niche terms that provoke uncertainty, then address them with clear reporting information.

How to debunk health misinformation

When a falsehood is spreading among your audience, it’s important to debunk it. A joint report by Full Fact, Chequeado and AfricaCheck offers several recommendations:

  1. Don’t give bad information more exposure
  2. Avoid inducing fear
  3. Remember that many vaccine-hesitant individuals hate needles
  4. Emphasize “high safety” instead of “low risk”
  5. Avoid imagery of syringes, blood, sharp objects
  6. Target the general public, not vocal vaccine deniers

Gain mastery over misinformation

Our flexible learning course, designed and run by First Draft’s highly experienced team, will help you stay one step ahead of those spreading conspiracies and false claims about vaccines. 

The live online workshops have now passed, but don’t worry, you can recap on all previous sessions in English below. 
Alternatively, eight other languages are available on our YouTube channel. Just choose your language below.

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How to understand vaccine misinformation

An overview of the misinformation landscape and a rundown of commonly used tactics for spreading misinformation online.

→ Download the study companion

How to identify the key vaccine narratives

A summary of the dominant vaccine narratives, misinformation and data defects on social media platforms.

→ Download the study companion

How to search for content online

Tips and tricks for better searching, including using Boolean queries and smarter keywords.

→ Download the study companion

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Guidance on reporting

Expert guidance to inform your reporting on vaccine misinformation.

Vaccine misinformation challenges in 2021

How can we prevent harm when reporting on vaccine misinformation?

Dr. Claire Wardle (First Draft), Dr. Glen Nowak (University of Georgia’s Center for Health and Risk Communication), Ifeoma Ozoma (Earthseed), and Jen Schwartz (Scientific American) discuss challenges of reporting on vaccine misinformation in 2021.

Mésinformation autour des vaccins en 2021

Comment éviter des effets nuisibles lorsque nous couvrons les mésinformations autour des vaccins?

Julie Charpentrat (AFP), Leonardo Heyerdahl (Institut Pasteur), Seb Cubbon (First Draft) et Marie Bohner (First Draft) abordent les défis liés au reportage sur les mésinformations autour des vaccins en 2021.

Misinformación sobre vacunas en 2021

 ¿Cómo prevenir el daño de amplificar la desinformación sobre las vacunas?

Elodie Martinez (AFP), Rory Smith (First Draft) y Jaime Longoria (First Draft) discuten los retos que enfrentan los periodistas al cubrir la desinformación sobre las vacunas en 2021.