Disinformation, Misinformation, and the Anti-Vax Campaign
Delegitimizing the Covid vaccines isn’t just about spreading the perception that they’re not safe
This is an odd moment in the history of the Covid-19 pandemic. On the one hand, developing countries around the world are clamoring for Covid vaccines, access to which has so far been dominated largely by wealthy countries. At the same time, there’s a burgeoning anti-vaccination campaign in those wealthy countries that’s doing everything it can to sow distrust and skepticism of the very vaccines developing countries can’t even get their hands on. Americans and Western Europeans are in the uniquely privileged position of being able to easily protect themselves against Covid. But anti-vaxxers are working very hard to convince them not to.
An especially dramatic example of this kind of anti-vax work was flagged by the Wall Street Journal earlier this week when it reported that several French social media influencers said they had been approached by a mysterious marketing firm called Fazze, which offered to pay them to make false claims about the safety of Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine. (The French are already more skeptical of vaccines than Americans and other Europeans, so they’re a logical target for this kind of targeted disinformation campaign.) And in a follow-up story, the Washington Post reported that influencers in other countries reported similar approaches.
Exactly who is behind these overtures remains a mystery, although French counterintelligence authorities apparently believe the Russian government may be responsible. But the story is a useful reminder that anti-vax efforts are often not simply organic expressions of people’s anxieties and fears, but rather orchestrated campaigns meant to serve broader political and cultural ends. That’s certainly the case in the U.S., where hostility to the Covid vaccines has become wrapped up in the ongoing culture war between liberals and conservatives. Delegitimizing the vaccines isn’t just about spreading the perception that they’re not safe — it’s also become a way to paint liberals as power-hungry elites who want everyone to fall in line and get vaccinated, regardless of safety. And in this campaign, one tool has become essential: the government’s Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (or VAERS).
VAERS is a public database where health care workers and patients can report any adverse health event that happens after someone has been vaccinated, and where the public can examine these reports to see what side effects people seem to be suffering. In principle, then, it’s a great example of crowdsourced information and government transparency. In practice, it’s become a breeding ground for misinterpretation, misinformation, and outright deception.
VAERS reports of serious reactions to Covid vaccinations — up to, and including, death — are regularly cited in social media posts purportedly enumerating the dangers of the vaccines. And Tucker Carlson, a few weeks ago, cited VAERS in a segment suggesting that 3,300 people had died after receiving a Covid vaccine and that this number was “not even close to normal.” But there are two serious problems with this use of VAERS data, neither of which vax skeptics ever mention.
The first, and most obvious, problem is that just because an adverse health event happens after someone gets vaccinated does not mean that the vaccination caused the event. Particularly with something like the Covid vaccine, which has now been administered more than 160 million times in the U.S., some number of people will come down with an illness or even die after getting vaccinated, simply from chance. The reason the CDC investigates VAERS reports is precisely to find out if there’s any actual link between a vaccination and the adverse event the patient suffered. Nor can you draw any conclusion from the sheer volume of reports. With a new vaccine, doctors and patients are far more likely to be paying attention to any side effects than they are with, say, an annual flu shot, and also more likely to report them. So you can’t compare the number of reports about Covid vaccines to the number of reports about a flu shot and conclude the former is riskier.
Beyond that, though, there’s a much deeper problem with VAERS reports: They’re entirely unvetted. As the CDC itself says, the database contains “unverified reports,” and “reports are accepted from anyone.” Reports can be submitted anonymously, and there is no identity verification required to submit a report. As a result, until an adverse event is actually investigated, you not only don’t know if there was the event was caused by vaccination, but you don’t even know if the event itself occurred. In the CDC’s words, “Reports may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.”
Historically, experts believe, few false reports were submitted to VAERS. But we’re in an information environment in which shadowy marketing agencies are trying to get bloggers to spread lies about vaccines. It’s hardly a stretch to think that unscrupulous anti-vaxxers might post false reports of negative reactions to the vaccines. And we know this is happening. In early May, for instance, a post started making the rounds on Facebook asserting that a two-year-old died after receiving a shot of the Pfizer vaccine and citing a VAERS report from March. This report was eventually removed from the database for being, in the words of a CDC spokesman, “completely made up.” But the fact that the lie came in the form of a VAERS report gave it credibility an otherwise unsourced claim would not have had.
That doesn’t mean that many, let alone most, VAERS reports are invented. But social media trades on high-profile stories, so even a few dramatic false reports can do a lot of damage. And even if you bracket the problem of deliberately falsified reports, until a report is investigated we have no idea if the information it contains is correct, or if the person filing it has made mistakes with regard to dates, the nature of the reaction, and so on. So it’s impossible, simply from looking at an unvetted VAERS report, to reach any conclusion about a vaccine’s risk.
In an honest information environment, people would acknowledge the limitations of the VAERS database and take a wait-and-see stance until reports have been investigated by the CDC, rather than treating them as true accounts of what happened. Yet anti-vaxxers are treating them as precisely that, and doing so because supports their ideological mission. The Covid vaccines — like Covid itself — have become the latest objects over which an information war is being fought. And unfortunately, in that war, VAERS has become a powerful weapon for the wrong side.