In late July, Andrew Torba, CEO of the alternative social network Gab, claimed without evidence that members of the U.S. military who refused to get vaccinated against the coronavirus would face a court-martial. His post on Gab amassed 10,000 likes and shares.
Two weeks earlier, the unfounded claim that at least 45,000 deaths had resulted from COVID-19 vaccines circulated online. Posts with the claim collected nearly 17,000 views on Bitchute, an alternative video platform, and at least 120,000 views on the encrypted chat app Telegram, where it was shared mostly in Spanish.
Around the same time, Britain’s chief scientific adviser misstated that 60% of hospitalized patients had been double-vaccinated. He quickly corrected the statement, saying the 60% had been unvaccinated. But anti-vaccine groups online seized on his mistake, translating the quote into French and Italian and sharing it on Facebook, where it collected 142,000 likes and shares.
Coronavirus misinformation has spiked online in recent weeks, misinformation experts say, as people who peddle in falsehoods have seized on the surge of cases from the delta variant to spread new and recycled unsubstantiated narratives.
Mentions of some phrases prone to vaccine misinformation in July jumped as much as five times the June rate, according to Zignal Labs, which tracks mentions on social media, on cable television and in print and online outlets. Some of the most prevalent falsehoods are that vaccines don’t work (up 437%), that they contain microchips (up 156%), that people should rely on their “natural immunity” instead of getting vaccinated (up 111%) and that the vaccines cause miscarriages (up 75%).
Such claims had tailed off in the spring as the number of COVID cases plummeted. Compared with the beginning of the year and with 2020, there was an observable dip in the volume of misinformation in May and June. (Zignal’s research isn’t an accounting of every single piece of misinformation out there, but the spiking of certain topics can be a rough gauge of which themes are most frequently used as vehicles for misinformation.)
The latest burst threatens to stymie efforts to increase vaccination rates and beat back the surge in cases. The vast majority of people testing positive for the virus in recent weeks, and nearly all of those hospitalized from the coronavirus, were unvaccinated. Public health experts, as well as doctors and nurses treating the patients, say misinformation is leading to some of the vaccine hesitancy.
Disinformation researchers say the spike shows that efforts by social media platforms to crack down on misinformation about the virus have not succeeded.
“These narratives are so embedded that people can keep on pushing these anti-vaccine stories with every new variant that’s going to come up,” said Rachel E. Moran, a researcher at the University of Washington who studies online conspiracy theories. “We’re seeing it with delta, and we’re going to see it with whatever comes next.”
In the past few weeks, the vast majority of the most highly engaged social media posts containing coronavirus misinformation were from people who had risen to prominence by questioning the vaccines in the past year.
In July, right-wing commentator Candace Owens jumped on the misstatement from Britain’s scientific adviser. “This is shocking!” she wrote. “60% of people being admitted to the hospital with #COVID19 in England have had two doses of a coronavirus vaccine, according to the government’s chief scientific adviser.”
After the scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, corrected himself, Owens added the correct information at the bottom of her Facebook post. But the post was liked or shared more than 62,000 times — two-thirds of its total interactions — in the three hours before her update, a New York Times analysis found. In all, the rumor collected 142,000 likes and shares on Facebook, most of them coming from Owens’ post, according to a report by the Virality Project, a consortium of misinformation researchers from outfits like the Stanford Internet Observatory and Graphika.
When reached for comment, Owens said in an email: “Unfortunately, I’m not interested in The New York Times. The people that follow me don’t take your hit pieces seriously.”
Also in July, Thomas Renz, a lawyer, appeared in a video claiming that 45,000 people had died from coronavirus vaccines. The claim, since debunked, relies on unverified information from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, a government database. The baseless claim had been included in a lawsuit that Renz filed on behalf of an anonymous “whistleblower,” in coordination with America’s Frontline Doctors — a right-wing group that spread misinformation about the pandemic in the past.
Renz’s video got more than 19,000 views on Bitchute. The unfounded claim was repeated by the top Spanish-language Telegram channels, Facebook groups and the conspiracy website Infowars, collecting more than 120,000 views across the platforms, according to the Virality Project.
In an email, Renz said his practice had “performed the due diligence necessary” to believe in the accuracy of the allegations in the lawsuit he had filed. “We actually do not believe that the Biden administration is responsible for this, rather we believe that President Biden, like President Trump before him, was misled by the same group of conflicted bureaucrats,” Renz said.
On Thursday, Torba, the Gab CEO, claimed that he was “getting flooded” with text messages from members of the military who said they would be court-martialed if they refused a coronavirus vaccine. Though military leaders have pushed to vaccinate troops and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will seek to mandate coronavirus vaccines by September, there is no evidence that the military plans to court-martial troops who do not get vaccinated.
Torba’s post collected 10,000 likes and shares on Gab, according to data from the Virality Project. Documents that he pushed on Gab’s news site to help service members request vaccine exemptions, including for religious reasons, also contained misinformation.
One of the documents made use of an old anti-vaccine talking point that aborted fetal cell lines were used in the development of the COVID19 vaccines — but Catholic and anti-abortion groups have said the vaccines are “morally acceptable.” The documents reached up to 2.2 million followers on Facebook, according to CrowdTangle data.
“I’m telling the truth,” Torba said in an email. “Your Facebook-funded ‘fact checkers’ like Graphika are wrong and are the people peddling disinformation here.”
Facebook, which has become more aggressive at enforcing its coronavirus misinformation policy in the past year, remains a popular destination for people discussing the misinformation.
Media Matters for America, a liberal watchdog group, found more than 200 public and private Facebook groups, with around 400,000 members, that were dedicated to anti-vaccine discussion. The groups, which the Times reviewed, added 13,000 members in the past seven days, according to Media Matters.
Many of the most popular posts in the groups did not include explicit falsehoods. One was an image of a Scooby Doo character unmasking a ghost with a caption that read, “Let’s see what makes you scarier than all the other variants.” The unmasking revealed the logos of MSNBC and CNN, implying that the cable channels were overstating the severity of the delta variant.
But like the comments on many of the other pages, those beneath the Scooby Doo item did contain unfounded claims. They also included calls to violence.
“China is completely to blame,” one comment said. “We’re going to have to fight them eventually, so I advocate a preemptive nuclear strike.”
Facebook said that it removed confirmed violations of its coronavirus misinformation policy from comments, and that it had connected people with authoritative information about the virus.
“We will continue to enforce against any account or group that violates our COVID-19 and vaccine policies,” Aaron Simpson, a Facebook spokesperson, said in an email.
Moran, the researcher, predicted there would be a “natural attention cycle” for this new round of misinformation. “After this spike, like with the original COVID strain, we’ll see it simmer down to normal levels of misinformation for a little while,” she said.
But the coronavirus misinformation will not go away anytime soon, Moran predicted. “Unfortunately it’s not spikes and troughs, but steady levels of misinformation,” she said.