The great COVID-19 infodemic: How disinformation networks are radicalizing Canadians

Click to play video: '‘It’s killing people’: The great COVID-19 infodemic' ‘It’s killing people’: The great COVID-19 infodemic
More must be done to combat COVID-19 disinformation sharing in Canada, researcher says – Dec 27, 2021

A common refrain of those opposed to vaccines is that immunizations are harmful to people’s health and an infringement on human rights. Any kind of science proving the efficacy of any vaccine is often denied.

In 2021, those health concerns have mutated into a widespread belief among the most staunchly anti-vaccine that if you receive a COVID-19 vaccine dose, you will almost certainly die.

The latter is a baseless conspiracy theory. But tens of thousands of Canadians believe it’s true and have created social media channels to promote it.

In an attempt to find the nucleus of the Canadian misinformation campaign, I spent a month immersed in the online world of anti-vaccine communities across the country.

I joined anti vaccine and anti-mandate groups on Telegram and Facebook, witnessing them transform from meeting places for the unvaccinated to a virtual confluence of hatred and disinformation — where I observed, for instance, calls for medical experts to be hanged and people comparing mass vaccination to genocide.

Alongside organizing countrywide anti-vaccine rallies, tens of thousands of Canadians are sharing fake news stories around rising stillbirth numbers, deaths caused by the COVID-19 vaccine and baseless theories of an impending social credit system that begins with QR codes.

Many of the people in these groups seem to believe all of this, despite a lack of proof.

The social networks

 

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The COVID-19 “infodemic” — the spread of misinformation alongside the spread of a virus — has been described as one of the greatest threats to overcoming the pandemic. But it’s also nothing new; false narratives swirled around the polio vaccine in the 1950s, too. The major difference in 2021, is that we have social media.

While social media giants such as Facebook and Twitter say they are doing their best to stamp out COVID-19 misinformation, such groups continue to hide in plain sight. All they’ve done is gotten more creative with their names; searches for “anti vaccine Canada” won’t turn up any results, but plug in synonyms for “freedom” or “unity” and “Canada” and you’ll find plenty.

Others have migrated to alternative messaging sites such as Telegram. This is where you’ll find “Unvaxxed Canada,” “Vaccine Choice Canada” and “BC Interior Freedom Fighters” and the various region-specific and career-specific groups they have spawned, which include hundreds of members regularly espousing anti-vaccine sentiments. There are now groups for unvaccinated healthcare workers, teachers, police officers and federal employees.

Read more: Job sites for unvaccinated thrive as vaccine mandates exclude employees

Many share links to petitions challenging vaccine mandates, links to fake news stories about exaggerated vaccine side effects, and despite the inherent distrust of the mainstream media, links to news articles in the mainstream media. Information is shared about public venues — gyms and restaurants, mostly — not enforcing vaccine mandates. Channels of businesses against mandates exist with thousands of subscribers.

It’s impossible to tell how many channels there are, as new ones pop up every few days. Participant numbers in each channel range between a few hundred to 50,000 — and they’re growing.

Canada Unity, an anti-vaccine group, now has more than 40,000 members.

A month ago, “Canada Unity,” a Facebook group regularly sharing anti-vaccine posts and misinformation, had 32,000 members. It now has 40,500. Vaccine Choice Canada on Telegram grew by 1,000 members to 15,773, and Unvaxxed Canada, while having only 750 members, has spawned at least 15 separate regional groups.

By-and-large, this is not the realm of the vaccine-hesitant. This is thousands of people hell-bent on telling you that the virus does not exist, the vaccine is a bioweapon designed to kill, and the unvaccinated are the only ones “awake” to mass genocide.

A COVID-19 “informational” video for Vaccine Choice Canada, a group founded in the 1980s, that says it’s against vaccine mandates, relies almost solely on disinformation. The video asserts that vaccines “alter” people’s DNA, that there is no clinical evidence the vaccine is effective, and that proven low-cost medications are being kept off the market.

It follows a rule that emerges very clearly after you join: that most narratives fly in the face of real, verified medical information.

Click to play video: 'Trudeau says feds ‘very concerned’ over Omicron COVID-19 outlook' Trudeau says feds ‘very concerned’ over Omicron COVID-19 outlook
Trudeau says feds ‘very concerned’ over Omicron COVID-19 outlook – Dec 13, 2021

Of the main vaccines approved for use in Canada, the Pfizer vaccine has proven to be 95 per cent effective in protecting people from catching COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, while the Moderna vaccine was 94.1 per cent effective and AstraZeneca was 62 per cent.

That has, however, changed recently in the face of the Omicron variant. A two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech vaccination now provides just 33 per cent protection against infection against Omicron, but 70 per cent protection against hospitalization, according to a large-scale analysis in South Africa. However, public health advice has not changed: vaccination remains the strongest line of defence against severe illness.

But science is routinely cast aside in these groups. Dissent against disinformation is rarely seen. Only in recent days have comments begun to appear questioning the veracity of random posts.

“People need to stop posting s–t they read on the internet, do your research, you aren’t helping,” someone says in “Unvaxxed Canada” under a false claim that Sobey’s is no longer accepting unvaccinated shoppers.

Posts directly underneath are of an old hoax stating Apple will remove Telegram from phones without notice, a Tiktok video reacting to a Miami school citing discredited info in a policy for vaccinated students to stay home for 30 days (a rule which was later scrapped), and a video of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson with a caption supposedly announcing “93 per cent of PCR tests don’t work.”

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This caption is false. Johnson was being interviewed about the limitations of airport testing.

None of these were questioned.

The theories

Most mid-sized channels, of a few thousand participants, share hundreds of comments per day. Mostly, they assert the pandemic is a hoax or its dangers have been overstated and the media and the pharmaceutical industry are knowingly suppressing this information.

Memes about the “asleep,” or vaccinated, portion of society — 87 per cent of Canadians aged over 12 — underline the theory that people are only taking vaccines out of fear, cowering behind their masks, as the unvaccinated fight for freedom.

It seems ironic then, that fear seems to be fueling much of their own narrative.

A Telegram channel discusses Covid-19 vaccine efficacy in children.

A new lexicon fuels emotion. People aren’t just unvaccinated anymore, they’re “unstabbed,” “unjabbed,” and the Harry Potter-esque, “pure bloods.”

The vaccine is a “death shot,” “death jab,” “suicide pill” (despite the vaccine being an injection), “quackzeen,” “clot shot,” “witches brew,” “frankenjab.” The pandemic becomes “plandemic.”

Coupled with pseudoscientific content from non-experts, anti-vaxxers have created an alternative world.

Comments accuse the government of deliberately trying to depopulate an, already quite unpopulated, country. A message regularly appears from Ontario MPP Randy Hillier, posted on Hillier’s Facebook page on Nov. 15, falsely claiming Public Health Ontario (PHO) is investigating 37 possible deaths due to vaccines.

Read more: Ontario MPPs vote unanimously to condemn Randy Hillier’s COVID-19 posts

Hillier’s claim is not true. PHO does not investigate deaths after vaccines, the Ministry of Health does. The ministry investigates all deaths categorized as “near the period of time where an individual received a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Since the start of the pandemic, Ontario has recorded eight deaths that met the provincial definition for an adverse event following immunization (AEFI). However, “these reports have not been clearly attributed to other causes and should not be interpreted as causally related with a COVID-19 vaccine,” PHO said in a statement.

A further 28 deaths had occurred that did not meet the provincial AEFI definition and preliminary information suggested that those who died had “multiple co-morbidities which may be related to the cause of death” and “there has been no association with a vaccine identified at this time.”

“Public Health Ontario is not investigating any of these reports,” a spokesperson said.

When contacted, Hillier stood by his statements, claiming that deaths and adverse events were not being properly recorded by PHO. He said people should be “skeptical” of the vaccines and should be doing what was best for themselves rather than the wider population. He said he had never followed any public health advice on masks or social distancing and had “never been sick,” but admitted he had never taken a COVID-19 test.

Read more: Fact check — COVID-19 vaccines are not causing a rise in stillbirths in Canada

 

In reality, very few deaths can be definitively linked to the vaccines in Canada. According to federal data, 248 deaths have occurred following the administration of 61.5 million vaccine doses. However, 88 are “unlikely” linked to the vaccine, 119 could not be assessed due to insufficient information and 41 are under investigation. This pales in comparison to the number of COVID-related deaths in Canada, which now stands at 30,012. So this theory, like so many others, actually inadvertently supports vaccine use.

Others just rely on no one doing their homework.

A recent TikTok video tried to prove there were fewer COVID-19 cases in Toronto than were being announced. The video pointed to the University Health Network’s (UHN) website, which says it was treating three COVID-19 patients. The poster said UHN “represents all five Toronto hospitals.”

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Toronto has about 40 hospitals. UHN is just one provider.

A conspiracy theory video on Tiktok falsely claims UHN is the only hospital provider in Toronto.

Other theories are more sinister. People claim variants are being released by governments on cue. There are parallels drawn between Nazi Germany and Canada; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Adolf Hitler; concentration camps and isolation facilities.

In recent weeks, baseless claims that stillbirths were “exploding” across Canada found a foothold on Telegram. An unverified article claimed there had been 86 stillbirths in six months at an unspecified hospital in Waterloo, Ont. and 13 in an unspecified 24-hour period at a Vancouver hospital.

We debunked that theory very quickly, simply by requesting official statistics. Data from the Better Outcomes Registry & Network (BORN), Ontario’s perinatal, newborn and child registry, shows there were between 12 and 15 stillbirths in the entire Waterloo region between January and June 2021. Data from Vancouver Coastal Health from April to late August 2021 reveals there were just four stillbirths across VCH’s seven hospitals in that period.

But these theories refuse to die. The same links are shared over and over, existing in a vacuum.

The hysteria

As the weeks drag on, conspiracy theories have grown more outlandish, and far less rooted in any semblance of fact.

It was apparent when children were approved for vaccines on Nov. 19.

“Starting Tuesday, they’re coming for Canada’s 5 to 11-year-olds,” one person on Telegram wrote.

Another said the vaccine would “maim, sterilize and kill their babies.”

“I feel bad for the kids of these brainwashed parents. There is zero benefit to these kids but so much potential risk,” another said.

Click to play video: 'Tips to prepare kids for immunizations' Tips to prepare kids for immunizations
Tips to prepare kids for immunizations – Nov 30, 2021

Many say they will take their children out of school. Others employ their sons and daughters at anti-vaccine rallies, proudly posting their pictures, looking confused and uninterested, holding placards that say “human experimentation is illegal” and “children need to breathe.”

Links to warnings of the risk of myocarditis and pericarditis (heart inflammations) appear repeatedly, with accusations lobbied at governments and mainstream media for covering it up.

But all of this information is freely available online.

Read more: ‘Boycott Chapman’s’ — Why anti-vaccine groups are taking aim at ice cream

Side-effects from the vaccine are possible, of course. But the reason the mainstream media rarely writes about it is because instances are rare and in line with those expected from any vaccine.

The government publishes weekly data on adverse side effects. According to the latest data, until Dec. 3, of the 61.5 million vaccine doses administered in Canada, there have been 28,825 adverse event reports (0.047 per cent of all doses administered). Of those, 6,581 were considered serious (0.011 per cent of all doses). The most common side effects were tingling or prickling, vaccine site pain and headaches.

Myocarditis and pericarditis have been reported in 1,428 patients across the country (0.0023 per cent of all doses), in the same time frame.

Click to play video: 'Immunization against COVID-19 should remain top priority: NACI' Immunization against COVID-19 should remain top priority: NACI
Immunization against COVID-19 should remain top priority: NACI – Dec 3, 2021

The risk of either disease is substantially more after a COVID-19 infection itself. In a study of hospitalized people of all ages in the United States between March 2020 and January 2021, the risk of myocarditis was 16 times higher for people with COVID-19 infections.

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Another conspiracy theory insists the recent devastating floods in B.C. were planned as a distraction tactic as vaccinations ramped up. There’s a listicle of people who have had a leg amputated after receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, hosted on a vaccine misinformation website. There’s a list of hundreds of professional soccer players who have recently died, or collapsed while playing, with unverified claims they were all vaccinated. There’s a paper on Pfizer’s “global war to abuse and attempt to murder as many children as possible with their deadly COVID-19 injections.”

Things get extremely meta one day when one person asks: “What if this channel is for nothing more than tracking and documenting the unvaxxed in order to pinpoint their relative locations?”

All of these conspiracy theories would be easily debunked with one simple question: “Why?”

But nobody asks.

The public distrust

Distrust of doctors and media is openly encouraged. Rallies are organized outside hospitals.

“Terrorists these days wear suits, ties and white coats,” one commenter says.

“The pure bloods know to stay away from hospitals because the vaccinated doctors and nurses will kill them,” another says.

People call for boycotts of just about any company enforcing mandates. The Chapman’s ice-cream boycott began on Telegram.

Someone posts an offer for a fake Covid-19 vaccine certificate on Telegram.

The lines between the anti-vaccine movement and the far-right continue to blur. Anti-abortion, anti-Islam and anti-5G comments are common.

There are promises of fake vaccine cards, offering QR codes and information uploaded into “the Pfizer website” for a fee of between $400 and $1,000. They appear to be scams. But it doesn’t matter anyway; the unvaccinated say this would be inadvertently complying with the rules.

The vortex

As time goes on, it becomes clear why the pull of these dark holes of distrust have become so powerful: because the very same technology companies who are vowing to combat them are inadvertently promoting them, via algorithms that boost pages you most engage with.

The more time I spend on anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, the more they top my news feed, becoming so entwined with friends’ pregnancy and new job announcements, that it’s difficult to discern which is which. Disinformation is now being offered up to me before my morning coffee.

It is also platform-agnostic. Conspiracy theories shared on Telegram will later appear on Facebook and Twitter, and vice-versa. Tiktok videos are downloaded and shared on other platforms. If you’re a member of one platform, you’re consuming all of the above.

Click to play video: 'Biden says social media sites like Facebook ‘are killing people’ by spreading COVID-19 disinformation' Biden says social media sites like Facebook ‘are killing people’ by spreading COVID-19 disinformation
Biden says social media sites like Facebook ‘are killing people’ by spreading COVID-19 disinformation – Jul 16, 2021

Facebook has long defended its fight against misinformation. It introduced social media stickers to show users when friends and family get vaccinated, display warnings on COVID-19 information that fact checkers have deemed false, and added labels to posts that discuss vaccines.

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In a statement, Alex Kucharski, Meta (Facebook’s parent company) Canada’s communications manager said 24 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram have been removed globally for violating misinformation policies. The company would not release Canada-specific data or answer specific questions about its misinformation policies.

“Meta is committed to not only fighting the spread of harmful health information on our platforms, but also working to ensure Canadians have access to reliable information to make informed decisions about their health,” Kucharski said.

The participants

But then, the virus breaks the anti-vaccine ranks without a hint of irony.

A man told a Telegram channel in early December that his entire family had contracted COVID-19.

“My wife and I are very sick. It’s no joke,” he wrote, asking for help.

Some compared experiences. Others post recipes for “homemade hydroxychloroquine” or suggest going to buy ivermectin, both unverified treatments for COVID-19.

Click to play video: 'Despite health warnings, horse medicine being purchased to treat COVID-19' Despite health warnings, horse medicine being purchased to treat COVID-19
Despite health warnings, horse medicine being purchased to treat COVID-19 – Sep 1, 2021

The conversation then returns to how the vaccine is killing people and not the virus.

It’s difficult to determine exactly who these people are. Results from cycle two of the Public Health Agency of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccination coverage survey released earlier this year showed, of the five per cent of Canadians who did not intend to get vaccinated, they tended to be younger, male, have less than a post-secondary education, and a household income of less than $60,000.

This data was recently posted in an anti-vaccine channel — with the poster asserting those with lower education levels were the most “awake.”

High-profile purveyors of anti-vaccine sentiments are portrayed as heroes. U.S. President Donald Trump is revered, as are discredited medical professionals.

Advertisements promote a speaker series of prominent “activists”: David Icke,  Americans Ty and Charlene Bollinger, infamous Canadian anti-vaccine protestor Chris Sky (Saccocia). Though Sky boasts more than 50,000 Telegram subscribers, some of the unvaccinated now label him a “grifter” and ask for his videos to be removed from public channels.

Read more: Politicians hanged in effigy at protest at B.C. legislature reflect disturbing trend, experts say

Queen’s University assistant professor and family doctor Michelle Cohen, who has been researching Canada’s infodemic, says the anti-vaccine movement is “laundering” false information through some right-wing politicians and former medical professionals to legitimize “whatever lies they want.”

“It’s giving a kind of a legitimizing gloss to the political movement,” she says.

“They’re so completely within their echo chambers of their own media, that they’re just within this little universe, and it doesn’t really matter what criticism they get from the outside. But then in the meantime, these echo chambers are just proliferating.”

Cohen says that despite the anti-vaccine movement representing a small portion of society, its ideologies are seeping into right-wing politics.

“This feels like it’s gone from being just like, ‘Oh, this is just in the alternative world. And this is just a conspiracy theory, we can kind of ignore it,’ to ‘This has pulled growing political power.'”

She believes more needs to be done, at a federal and provincial level, to counter the flow of false information.

Fact checking is routinely eschewed because people are “tribally associated” with the movement and the community, she says.

“You can really develop a solid-like bulletproof echo chamber that no facts can penetrate.”

The line in the sand

 

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What has become abundantly clear is that being anti-vaccine is no longer simply a personal choice — it is a way of life for many. A line in the sand has been drawn in recent weeks, as workplace mandates come into force.

In one channel, someone posits the question: “Any unvaccinated guys here having trouble finding unvaccinated women in Ontario/ Quebec?”

Someone replies: “Vaxxed women are sterile and can spread their spike proteins.”

Another says the vaccine can be shared via sexual intercourse. Another says they don’t want any vaccinated people in their house.

“Human shedding” of the virus is impossible. COVID-19 vaccines in Canada do not contain the live virus, and thus it is not possible for any “viral shedding” to occur.

Unvaccinated people on a Telegram channel speak about navigating the world of dating during the pandemic.

One woman says her husband got vaccinated while she was out of town and she no longer feels she can be intimate with him. Another woman says her boyfriend did the same, so she has been avoiding him.

“I would never lie to a woman about my vaccination status. In fact, it’s the first thing I ask now to women. If they’re vaxxed, I move on,” the original poster says.

“That’s hot,” a woman replies.

“Thx. You from Qbc/Ontario?”

Someone asks if there are any unvaxxed dating sites yet. Apparently there are.

Someone says they’ve been barred from a family Christmas lunch for being unvaccinated. Another recounts cutting off his own family.

“I don’t regret walking away from any of my control freak braindead blood relatives because there’s so much more time for meeting new spiritual family, like many of you.”

The lack of action

Despite the retweets and hashtags, these groups have had little impact outside of their virtual bubbles. Rallies continue, but accomplish little more than a few hours of traffic disruption. Petitions and potential lawsuits are routinely threatened — some solicit for money to fund them — but continue to fail.

The latest call to action is for people to carry black marker pens to scribble on QR codes in public places — thus, they say, rendering them ineffective. But, the campaign itself seems ineffective, too.

“I tried it and it didn’t work,” one poster wrote.

Click to play video: 'COVID-19: Proof of vaccine now needed to fly in Canada' COVID-19: Proof of vaccine now needed to fly in Canada
COVID-19: Proof of vaccine now needed to fly in Canada – Nov 30, 2021

Despite weeks of threatening that rights were being impeded and lawsuits would be filed with airlines, on Nov. 30, it still became illegal for the unvaccinated to travel on domestic planes or trains. Comments were of defiance.

“Travel these days must be a nightmare anyway.”

Four weeks in, and defeatist attitudes are beginning to show. Someone posts a poll asking: “Have you decided to pack up and leave Canada?”

Sixty-five per cent respond that they are “thinking about leaving.”

A meme in an anti-vaccine group on Telegram.

Someone shares a meme of asylum seekers in a rubber dinghy. The caption says: “Unvaccinated Canadians fleeing Canada after being banned from any other form of travel.”

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“It may come to this,” the poster says. The conversation turns to where they would go — Mexico? Easter Island? The Kamchatka Peninsula?

“It is nice to see that there is a large group of independent thinkers out there,” someone says. “There are good people in the world.”

“Happy to be onboard with you all,” another writes.