18th February 2021
By Ciarán O’Connor
COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is giving rise to threatening discussions and activity on social media. As conspiracy communities speculate and 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 online.
In recent months, in Ireland and elsewhere, clashes at anti-lockdown protests have shown how online vitriol can lead to offline violence. This briefing takes a closer look at the nature of some of this online vitriol, focussing on Irish communities and COVID-19 vaccine misinformation between January 1-31, 2021. This briefing is part of an ongoing series examining COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on Facebook across several countries.
For more on the methodology used, see here.
➜ Irish COVID-19 vaccine misinformation communities on Facebook are on the rise. Our analysis has shown that the number of users and level of engagement among Irish Facebook conspiracy communities has spiked in the last six months.
➜ Among a list of 40+ Irish COVID-19 conspiracy and misinformation Facebook groups analysed, the number of Facebook users in these groups has almost doubled in six months, up from 68,500 users at the end of July 2020 to over 130,800 users by 1 February 2021. This represents a 90% increase in the number of users in these groups.
➜ In January 2021, these groups hosted over 20,900 posts – photos, links, statuses and videos. These posts generated 467,000 interactions (reactions, comments and shares), compared to 256,000 interactions in July 2020 from 12,900 posts, which is a 62% increase in the number of posts and 82% increase in the level of interactions.
➜ There is an inconsistent approach to fact-checking similar pieces of misleading COVID-19 vaccine content on Facebook, running counter to the platform’s stated policy of aiming to remove false claims about “the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines.” In early February, Facebook also expanded its policies to tackle all vaccine-related misinformation.
➜ Unfounded claims that COVID-19 vaccines might lead to injury or death appear frequently among Irish COVID conspiracy communities.
Misinformation specifically about the vaccine
Facebook’s COVID-19 update in December 2020 specifically addressed vaccine misinformation. It stated that the platform planned to remove false claims “about the safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects of the vaccines” that appear on Facebook and Instagram. But COVID-19 vaccine misinformation remains widely available on Facebook. There is a clear inconsistency in the application of fact-checks across different formats of post, embedded video links, hosted video and articles on Facebook.
This is highlighted through the case of an unsubstantiated claim that mRNA (i.e. Pfizer and Moderna) vaccines might cause recipients to die. Various posts shared among Irish conspiracy pages and groups feature comments from Dolores Cahill, a professor who has previously downplayed the severity of COVID-19 and said there is no need for a vaccine. Cahill has claimed that, through a process referred to as a “cytokine storm” (an overreaction of the body’s immune system, per BBC), mRNA vaccines “bypass your immune system” to weaken it “within two or three weeks.”
There is no evidence to support this claim, yet throughout January, Irish conspiracy communities on Facebook promoted her claims. Her claims appeared in various posts on Facebook, some of which feature Facebook fact checks, whilst others do not, highlighting the platform’s inconsistent approach to flagging harmful and misleading claims. Her comments were shared in a video uploaded to Bitchute, a video platform with minimal content moderation and barebones terms of service, and a known haven for extremist material. Facebook posts featuring the specific link to this video now feature a fact check from Health Feedback, an official Facebook fact checking partner, which states that there is no evidence to support these claims.
However, the same video was directly uploaded to one Facebook group with over 17,000 users in a post titled “This new kind of mRNA vaccine will make you sick. Higher chances of death.” This video features no fact check. On another Facebook page run by an Irish conspiracy website, a link to an article hosted on the website was shared, which features the video in a post titled “Dolores Cahill: Why people will start dying a few months after the first mRNA vaccination.” This post, shared by nearly 15 users at the time of writing, also features no fact check.
Other cases of misinformation specifically about the vaccine
A misleading claim is now circulating online that the COVID-19 vaccine increases the risk of HIV. A Facebook page posted a meme that claimed that, among other side effects, the “new COVID-19 vaccine,” (without specifying which vaccine), “increased HIV risk” for recipients. Snopes published a lengthy explainer as to why this is misleading, first noting that a team of researchers who worked on a HIV vaccine in the 2000s have warned that “some COVID-19 vaccines in development…are built with an “ad5 viral vector” which may increase the risk of HIV acquisition in men.” Yet, Snopes continued, the risk “remains theoretical” and that “only one COVID-19 vaccine in limited use, CanSino Biologics’ Convidecia, uses the same Ad5 viral vector” mentioned in the researchers’ piece.
Unchecked material is promoting the belief that the pharmaceutical industry is inherently corrupt. In one Facebook group, a user published a post that said “I don’t understand how people can trust these [pharmaceutical] companies when they are been [sic] sued left right and centre for damages caused by these vaccines and the cover ups.” In the post, the user links to news articles highlighting lawsuits involving Pfizer in recent years.
The post, shared over 144 times, is not overtly sensational or false, though it merits inclusion here as it demonstrates how distrust in the public health approach to vaccinations is fostered online. Previous cases of malpractice by companies manufacturing vaccines are highlighted as a way of portraying the entire pharmaceutical industry as corrupt. This sort of content is regularly used to cast doubt on the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines. The context of these claims is important when assessing their potential to mislead and their potential risk of offline harm.
Misinformation about the process of vaccine rollout
A right-wing media website is using Facebook to promote misinformation about vaccine deaths. Throughout January 2021, the site published articles and posts on Facebook claiming that healthcare workers have died after taking a COVID-19 vaccine or tested positive after receiving the vaccine. On January 15, the site used Facebook to promote an article it had published, which reported on the death of Sonia Azevedo, a Portuguese nurse who, they claim, “died just hours after receiving the first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine.”
This is false and misleading, as determined by Snopes, who investigated the claims surrounding Azevedo’s death. According to Snopes, Portuguese media reported that Azevedo died two days after receiving a COVID-19 vaccination. Moreover, following a post mortem, Portugal’s government confirmed “that the cause of death was not due to the vaccine.”
The website has used Facebook to promulgate other misleading claims about COVID-19 vaccines. In one article, the site highlighted the case of a nurse in Wales who “reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 three weeks after taking the Pfizer vaccine.” The article went on to state that “the effectiveness of the vaccine is now in question.” Again, this is misleading.
The BBC reported on the same case and stated that “vaccination has been shown to prevent severe infection, so even if people do catch the virus, they would be protected from getting seriously ill.” These articles demonstrate how misinformation that ignores the nuances of the complex science surrounding COVID-19 in favour of promoting simplistic arguments against vaccination can mislead readers and reduce trust in public health processes.
A separate claim about a “database” for people who refuse the vaccine is being used to stoke fear. A post that was shared over 525 times among Irish conspiracy communities on Facebook in January claims that the Health Service Executive is “creating a database of people who refuse to take the COVID vaccine.” This claim is based on a January 5 article in the Irish Daily Mail that quotes an HSE spokeswomen who said the agency will record those who do and do not get the vaccine, adding that “everyone will have control of their own data.”
The language used on Facebook exaggerates the central point of the article, creating the perception that the Irish government is singling out anti-vaccine supporters and fostering a view that these people will be put under surveillance for their beliefs. Like much misinformation, this claim has a kernel of truth in it, but the framing of the issue could deceive people. Additionally, this highlights a grey zone for social platforms when developing policies and practices around combating misleading content that is not as explicit or clear as other false claims online.
Misinformation about the societal impact of a vaccine
Vaccine misinformation is fuelling violent and threatening conversations online, with violent threats issued in response to the Taoiseach’s vaccine comments. Speaking in mid-January, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said that people may have to prove they received a COVID-19 vaccine “to get on a plane or go to a pub,” adding that “it will be important for people to have a certification to show they’ve had a jab,” per reports from the Irish Mirror. These comments triggered a raft of violent and threatening responses among members of Irish conspiracy Facebook communities. The comments are still live on the platform at the time of writing.
In one Facebook group, one user compared Martin to “Judas” and “Hitler”, while another called Martin a “satanist.” In another group, the Taoiseach was labelled a “traitor” while another Facebook user said it was “time he was took [sic] to the bog [to be injured/killed].” In that same group, when one person said they would like to see Martin get slapped in the face over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, another person replied “I don’t condone violence but I’d love to see him hanging from.a.tree [sic] with Leo [Varadkar, Tanaiste] underneath waiting to break his neck when the branch breaks and he lands on him.” his comment was posted on January 16 and is still live on Facebook.
Great Reset conspiracy trends among Irish conspiracy communities. The “Great Reset” conspiracy, first promoted in 2020 among far-right influencers online, has made its way to Ireland and features prominently among conspiracy communities on Facebook. The New York Times reported that supporters of the conspiracy believe that a “cabal of elites has long planned for the pandemic so that they could use it to impose their global economic control on the masses”.
In one Irish Facebook group, a user posted an image of Green Party leader Eamon Ryan appearing on RTÉ’s Prime Time, wearing a lapel pin promoting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. The user also included a photo of UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wearing the pin and said “Ryan on PrimeTime with his Great Reset badge.” This post was shared over 70 times.
A conspiracy Facebook page shared a screenshot of a news article equating the “Great Reset” with “Agenda 2030,” another popular conspiracy theory which claims that a UN-led world government is trying to depopulate the planet. Another Facebook page shared a video promoting the “Great Reset” and said “this is what all the government control is really about.” In a Facebook group, one user claimed towns and cities across Ireland are “really embracing the whole Great Reset agenda” and shared a graphic that claimed the conspiracy seeks to achieve “total human slavery.”
This research provides insight as to how the process of vaccine rollout may be undermined by misinformation as online conspiracy communities speculate, share and spread unsubstantiated claims. 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.