4th March 2021
By Ciarán O’Connor
COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is now giving rise to threatening comments and discussions on social media as well as increasing the risk of detrimental public health outcomes offline. As conspiracy communities share unsubstantiated claims about the process of vaccine rollout and how vaccines might impact people’s lives post-coronavirus, they also promote suspicion and anger that can lead to harassment and violence.
In Canada, protests against COVID-19 restrictions fuelled by conspiracies and misinformation have generated anger and hostility. After a recent Alberta rally, Premier Jason Kenney condemned “extremists who peddle hatred and division… [at] this event.” This article takes a closer look at Canadian communities promoting COVID-19 vaccine misinformation over the period 1-28 February 2021. It is part of an ongoing series examining COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on Facebook across several countries.
For more on the methodology used, see here.
➜ Canadian COVID-19 vaccine misinformation communities on Facebook have grown by 48% in the past six months.
➜ Across our sample of 45 groups and 33 pages in Canada that regularly feature COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, as of 1 March 2021 there are now over 432,000 Facebook users that like these pages/are members of these groups, compared to 291,200 users on 1 September 2020.
➜ In February 2021, our sample of Facebook groups hosted 46,800 posts (photos, links, statuses, and videos) which generated 998,200 interactions (reactions, comments and shares), representing a 29% increase in the number of posts and 49% increase in the level of interactions since September 2020.
➜ Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s vaccine comments triggered China-related conspiracies online about Canada’s hotel quarantine plan.
➜ Vaccine disinformation influencers use Facebook groups to share deceptive claims in a coordinated manner, reaching broad audiences with identical misleading content.
Misinformation specifically about the vaccine
A recurring theme in online COVID-19 vaccine disinformation revolves around the baseless claim that mRNA vaccines will cause a “cytokine storm,” or an auto-immune response in those vaccinated, who will then become ill or die after receiving it. This claim is so prevalent that Reuters, Science Feedback and Lead Stories have each published fact checks stating it is false or that it lacks evidence. Writing for Meedan Digital Health Lab, health specialists also stated that there was no evidence for the claim.
In a video of an interview with Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an American anti-vaccination activist who has previously described the COVID-19 pandemic as a “scamdemic”, Tenpenny promoted the “cytokine storm” claim. Versions of the same interview were also posted to lesser-known, fringe video platforms like Bitchute, Rumble and OurTube, and then pushed on Facebook. Four versions of this interview were uploaded on these three fringe video platforms and have received a collective 287,550 views since the beginning of January.
In the same period, these videos have also been shared over 6,000 times on Facebook. Two versions shared on Facebook now feature a fact check from Lead Stories while two others do not. This highlights an inconsistent approach from Facebook to fact-checking similar pieces of misleading COVID-19 vaccine content, as noted in a previous ISD report.
Video platforms that engage in minimal content moderation or have minimal terms of service, like Bitchute, are havens for extremist and conspiratorial material that is designed to mislead or indoctrinate people. Extremists and conspiracy theorists exploit platforms such as Facebook with simple workarounds using links outward to these types of alternative platforms that continue to host misleading content.
Other cases of misinformation specifically about the vaccine
A wellness page is claiming that the vaccine is “gene therapy”. A post published by a Canadian alternative medicine and health Facebook page with 8,000+ followers, shared 125 times on the platform, claimed that mRNA vaccines are a form of “gene therapy” that produce “toxins” inside people’s bodies. This is false, as reported by Lead Stories. Dr David Gorski, Editor of Science-Based Medicine, has also published a fact-check stating this is false.
Throughout February, this same Facebook page posted about COVID-19 vaccines 31 times generating 3,863 interactions, including posts that claimed the “vaccine is designed to make you sick” and “vaccines are not safe and never will be.” As reported by the Guardian and ISD, the role of alternative health and wellness influencers and their “preoccupation with individual choice, mindfulness and health” has played a significant role in spreading COVID-19 conspiracies.
Misinformation about the vaccine rollout
A Canadian vaccine choice group is serving as serial spreader of vaccine mistrust. Vaccine Choice Canada, the Facebook page with 16,000 followers for the anti-vaccination activist organization of the same name, has used Facebook to sow distrust about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and to promote unverified stories that claim vaccine recipients have been injured or have died as a result of the shot.
Vaccine Choice Canada recently wrote and published a letter that promulgates vaccine misinformation and scepticism in the most emotive and alarmist language. The letter claims that COVID-19 vaccines have been insufficiently tested and then warns potential vaccine recipients of the “consequences.” The letter makes use of factual information, such as the vaccines having “only” been given “interim approval” by Health Canada, to negatively frame them as an “experimental’ drug”, and thus dangerous. The letter has been shared 188 times on Facebook and was posted at least twice on Instagram, generating 443 likes.
The most effective misinformation often incorporates – and manipulates – key elements of verifiable information in order to support false claims. This tactic integrates facts into larger conspiracy narratives in order to encourage distrust and promote scepticism.
The reaction to the death of a Saskatchewan healthcare worker shows how vaccine disinformation exploits Facebook’s Groups feature. Saskatchewan healthcare worker Thomas Tom died in mid-February. CBC reported that he had tested positive for COVID-19 and died “only 24 hours after being given his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.” The report makes clear there is no evidence to suggest that the vaccine was linked to his death. This has not stopped conspiracy theorists from linking Tom’s death to COVID-19 vaccines, and in one case, exploiting Facebook’s networked group infrastructure to rapidly spread disinformation.
A Facebook user shared a CBC article about Tom’s death, stating “this has all the signs of a vaccine death.” The user posted this identical text at least three separate times in three different Canadian conspiracy groups on the same day. As of writing, none of these posts feature fact-checking information marking it as false.
These same posts were then shared by at least four more pages and groups by other users. In total, the post was shared at least 148 times. The spread of this baseless claim highlights how Facebook has created an infrastructure that allows users to share misleading information rapidly to sizable audiences, and then failed to adequately address how this function is being exploited on their platform.
Misinformation about the societal impact of a vaccine
Trudeau’s vaccine comments triggered China-related conspiracies. On 11 February, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that there could be “consequences” for people who do not get vaccinated – a comment that triggered a spike in China-related conspiracies among online communities. In late January, Canada’s government announced measures requiring all incoming air passengers to quarantine in a pre-approved hotel. When it was reported that Radisson hotels had been chosen for the program by the government, conspiracies regarding the hotel group began to swirl.
A far-right media site seeded one conspiracy that claimed the “COVID hotels” for quarantining in were run by China, due to the 2018 acquisition of the Radisson hotel group by Jia Jiang, the state-owned Chinese hotel group. This ties into broader narratives spread by far-right entities in both the US and Canada, which have, since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, attempted to portray their critics in the media and often opposing politicians as supportive of or controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.
Facebook conspiracy communities also shared content claiming Trudeau had “established a chain of COVID prisons” for unwilling vaccine recipients in the Radisson hotels at the behest of China. In one COVID-19 conspiracy Facebook group, users claimed this proved that Trudeau was “obviously compromised.” In a comment, another user shared a number of misleading and false claims and asked: “China introduces a manufactured virus, owns hotels used for quarantine, and deploys thousands of troops on Canadian soil. Who is controlling Canada?”
Old news reports about post-COVID life are being used to direct slurs, threats and hatred toward public figures. A CBC article from August 2020 featuring comments from Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, was used to direct hatred towards Tam and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in February 2021. In August, Tam said that Canadians should not expect COVID-19 vaccines to be a “silver bullet” that immediately ends the pandemic. Old or dated news reports are a subtle form of misleading information, here used by conspiracy communities to target public figures over past comments made when there was less information available about the issue.
The CBC article was shared across 69 Facebook pages and groups in February, generating 8,385 interactions and many threatening comments about Tam, including anti-LGTBQ slurs, and Trudeau. In one Facebook group, users commented “just hang them high! I got the rope!” and “kill Trúdo [sic].” In another group, one user said “Terminate Trudeau by any and all means possible.” These comments are still live on Facebook at the date of publication and are indivicate of the type of threats made to public figures at the center of efforts to tackle the spread of COVID-19s commonly seen among conspiracy communities
This research illustrates how the process of vaccine rollout can be undermined by online misinformation. Tackling COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is an essential step in boosting public confidence in vaccines. The responses of social media platforms, governments and health institutions to this misinformation will be a crucial component in allowing societies to emerge as quickly as possible from the pandemic.
Ciarán O’Connor is an Analyst on ISD’s Digital Analysis Unit with expertise on the far-right and disinformation environment online and open-source research methodologies. Before joining ISD, Ciaran worked with Storyful news agency. He has an MSc in Political Communication Science from the University of Amsterdam and is currently learning Dutch.