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CNN. ABC News. New York Times. Fox News.
These are the publishers of four of the five most popular posts on Facebook for articles about the Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine this week. They are ranked 2-5 in overall interactions, according to data from the Crowdtangle tracking tool.
However, number one is not from an information organization. Or a civil servant. Or a public health expert.
The most popular link on Facebook for Johnson & Johnson news was shared by a conspiracy theorist and self-described “news analyst and hip-hop artist” named An0maly, who believes the pandemic is a cover for state control.
This is a clear example of what experts warn that a flood of false and misleading information about a single vaccine could occur.
When most Americans went to bed Monday night, news of Covid-19 vaccinations in the United States was overwhelmingly positive: the average number of injections a day exceeded three million, leading to very rosy predictions that pandemic restrictions could ease in the coming months. and some semblance of normalcy may return.
But that story changed on Tuesday after that federal health officials recommend suspending use of Johnson & Johnson vaccine after a handful of reports of blood clots appeared among the millions of people who received the shot.
Many doctors argue that this type of delay should actually be seen as positive for vaccine safety: staff pay close attention to reports of side effects and act quickly to maintain public confidence in vaccination efforts.
But experts who follow Internet trends are preparing for the worst when it comes to how this news is understood and accepted by the public.
“I would call this the perfect storm of disinformation,” said Jennifer Granston of Zignal Labs, a media intelligence platform.
Millions of Americans were already skeptical of vaccines before the Johnson & Johnson news, and there is a huge online network to fuel that skepticism with bad information and conspiracy theories.
This network became operational almost immediately after the announcement of the vaccination break.
Robert Kennedy Jr., who is considered one of the most disseminators of vaccine misinformation in the United States, posted the news to his 230,000 followers on Facebook.
Rizza Islam, another prominent promoter of vaccine variability, especially within the black community, posted on Twitter messages about conspiracy theories about Johnson & Johnson news to its 54,000 followers (Islam was recently removed from Facebook).
Even a country lawmakers used the news to suggest vaccines were not safe. A Pennsylvania lawmaker, Rob Kaufman, told his 13,700 followers on Facebook that “we don’t fully understand these vaccines.”
A current topic means an opportunity
In most cases, social media companies say they can’t do much to respond in cases like this, as people largely share articles based on factual information, even if the comment and subtext surrounding the post is intended for further false ideas.
Many anti-vaccine activists have seen this tactic as a way to circumvent social media policies designed to stop the spread of misinformation.
An0maly,, The influencer, with the widespread publication about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, shared a CNN story with a misleading caption to his 1.5 million followers on Facebook.
“The point is, this is a factual report,” said Sarah Roberts, a professor of information research at UCLA. “But the people who read the report either have such deep-seated ideas about its significance, or they lack the appropriate context to get the information.”
Overall, it’s hard to exaggerate the extent to which Johnson and Johnson’s story exploded online.
The company received as many mentions online every hour on Tuesday as in any week before the news, according to Zignal.
Many of these mentions are not related to misinformation, but Granston of Zignal says that at any time, interest in such a topic on the Internet, especially with a polarizing object such as vaccines, provides a mature environment for misinformation.
“These big conversations provide this huge platform for people to develop a specific program around this information,” she said.
Zignal noticed a stir in the mention of side effect stories, but also in other vaccine misinformation stories unrelated to actual news such as vaccine passports, deaths and microchips.
Johnson and Johnson’s break is also fertile ground for conspiracies because it is a evolving topic with a number of unanswered questions.
Often, misinformation traders with a specific agenda will fill knowledge gaps with false information, knowing that people desperately want any information.
“This is supply and demand,” said Keenan Chen, a disinformation researcher at the First Draft nonprofit.
As health professionals are still investigating the clotting problem and setting guidelines for the vaccine, there is not much reliable information that the government or reliable retailers can provide to fill this gap.
Roberts of UCLA says the problem is deepening as the country has become so divided over the pandemic as a whole.
Former President Trump has been preparing part of the country over the past few years to be skeptical of official sources of scientific information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Tuesday, he issued a statement that included a false conspiracy theory about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, claiming without evidence that the decision was made in favor of competing drug manufacturers.
Now, Roberts says, every time the CDC comes up with guidelines for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, health officials will struggle with ingrained doubts.
“Every time there will be a new negative [vaccine] information or circumstances that raise doubts, as if we are caught on our hind legs and need to reunite and move forward, “Roberts said. To call this a hard battle … I mean, it’s like Mount Everest – a large-scale battle. Uphill seems like an understatement. “
Even after these guidelines come out, which officials say they hope will be in a few days, this development is likely to have pulsating effects, especially driven by those who have made a fear business model and built their brands on vaccine skepticism. .
Chen of First Draft notes that many of the actors who spread the vaccine misinformation also passed the election-related misinformation last fall and the misinformation about other aspects of the pandemic.
“[For] “The group of people whose business is to expand their social media audience and they make money from it, it’s very easy to imagine that they will continue to spread this story, that they will come back and point to this break,” Chen said. . “I would have a hard time imagining that they would just stop – that they would just give up.”