Anti-Vaxxers Are Spreading a Wild Theory About 'Disappearing' COVID Vaccine Needles

Social media platforms are letting conspiracy theories about the COVID vaccine spread unchecked.
December 17, 2020, 1:56pm
Mesa Fire Department Capt. Jeff Stieber, right, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 at the Arizona Department of Health Services State Laboratory from nurse Machrina Leach, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)​
Mesa Fire Department Capt. Jeff Stieber, right, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 at the Arizona Department of Health Services State Laboratory from nurse Machrina Leach, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Anti-vaxxers are using a video showing a retractable needle being used to administer the coronavirus vaccine to suggest that the COVID-19 vaccine is a hoax — and the claim has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times on social networks.

The videos have been posted on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram with a variety of captions, all of which are suggesting that there is something nefarious happening.

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“Have a look guys, disappearing needle on exit. This is how stupid they think you are,” one Twitter user commented. “Another video showing you it was all a scam, it was never about the virus,” another Twitter user said. 

Many in the anti-vaxx community have taken the video as proof that vaccine injections captured on camera are fake, and just part of the plan by the “elites” to trick ordinary people into taking the vaccines, which is in fact a way for the government — or Bill Gates — to control them.

The reality is that the nurses administering the vaccine were using retractable syringes, which see the needlepoint retracting into the body of the syringe once the medicine has been administered, a safety mechanism to prevent unwanted jabs.

The conspiracy first gained traction on Twitter, with one video clip taken from a BBC report posted on Wednesday racking up over 320,000 views to date. 

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The tweet has not been labeled as misinformation by Twitter. The company announced Wednesday that it won’t begin placing warning labels on “unsubstantiated rumors, disputed claims, as well as incomplete or out-of-context information about vaccines”  until early 2021.

Another video comes from footage captured on Tuesday of the first injections at the University Medical Center of El Paso, Texas, and shows an unnamed male nurse having a syringe inserted into his arm.

Anti-vaxxers on social media made similar claims that this video was evidence that the vaccine was a hoax, claims that were given further oxygen when several online news outlets picked up the story without providing any clarification about what had happened.

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These videos are now beginning to gain traction on Instagram and Facebook, with data from the Facebook-owned analytics tool CrowdTangle showing thousands of interactions on dozens of posts sharing the video. 

As the vaccine begins to roll out across the U.S. and other Western countries, the amount of disinformation being shared online has increased dramatically and, like the ”disappearing needle” narrative, these conspiracies are taking advantage of a lack of reliable information about a newly trending topic.

“We call these situations ‘data deficits:’ where high levels of demand for information about a specific topic are not adequately matched by a supply of credible information,” Seb Cubbon, a research analyst with fact-checking group First Draft, wrote earlier this week.

“Unlike ‘data voids’ where search engine queries turn up little to no results, deficits are situations in which much information exists but it is misleading, confusing, false, or even harmful.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic played out throughout 2020, the general public scrambled to understand the details of a virus that was killing hundreds of thousands of people around the world, and the work being done to create a vaccine — topics that are typically the reserve of scientists and epidemiologists. 

And in a lot of cases, when people turned to the internet for information, they didn’t find answers, as health authorities, social media platforms, and journalists did not move fast enough to make accurate and reliable information available to those looking for answers.

Anti-vaxxers are more than willing to fill that gap, using their well-established networks on social media platforms to quickly amplify false narratives like the “disappearing needle.”

While Facebook and other platforms have promised to do more to prevent the spread of coronavirus vaccine misinformation, they have allowed anti-vaxxers to establish such large networks in recent years, that their efforts now are only going to address a fraction of the tidal wave of false information that is already beginning to infect these platforms.