Vaccine misinformation is growing in Canada thanks to influencers using Facebook in a “coordinated manner,” according to a new study from an extremism think tank.
The study, by the U.K.’s Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), found that within the last six months ”vaccine misinformation communities” on Facebook have grown by 48 percent, from 291,200 users in September 2020 to more than 432,000 users now.
The ISD analyzed over 45 groups and 33 pages, and found the number of posts from the groups increased 29 percent, and interactions (reactions, comments, and shares) went up 49 percent in the same time period.
“Vaccine disinformation influencers use Facebook groups to share deceptive claims in a coordinated manner, reaching broad audiences with identical misleading content,” said the study.
Examples of vaccine misinformation mentioned in the study include videos from well-known anti-vaxxers, claims the vaccines will cause auto-immune responses in people that will lead to death, posts from alternative health pages that the vaccine is “gene therapy,” conspiracies that COVID-19 was created and weaponized by China, and posts that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is “compromised” by Chinese officials.
The ISD also found posts featuring death threats against Trudeau and Canada’s top doctor Theresa Tam.
Anti-mask and anti-lockdown groups are deeply tied to anti-vaccination activists and organizations. Almost all of the anti-lockdown and anti-mask activists in Canada who have gained prominence over the last year harbour strong anti-vaccination sentiments. In fact, for many of them, anti-vax conspiracy theories were their entry into the community. Within large groups Facebook groups started by these leaders—such as Hugs over Masks, the Line, and Mothers Against Social Distancing—anti-vaccination misinformation is rife and spreads quickly. The groups share members and moderators work to amplify one other’s messages.
In one example listed in the ISD study, conspiracy theorists seized upon the COVID-19 related death of a Saskatchewan health care worker, wrongly linking it to the COVID vaccines and “exploiting Facebook’s networked group infrastructure to rapidly spread disinformation.”
“The spread of this baseless claim highlights how Facebook has created an infrastructure that allows users to share misleading information rapidly to sizable audiences and then failed to adequately address how this function is being exploited on their platform,” the study said.
In a comment to VICE World News last week for a separate story about these groups, Erin Taylor, a spokesperson for Facebook Canada, said the company is working with Public Health Canada to provide Canadians with correct information.
“We’ve removed millions of pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram globally for containing misinformation on COVID-19 that may lead to imminent physical harm, such as content relating to fake preventative measures or exaggerated cures,” said Taylor.
Facebook said it had removed Mother’s Against Distancing (MAD) for “repeated violations of our Community Standards.” At the time of its deletion, the page had 11,000 followers. Another MAD group was deleted in the summer (once again following a VICE World News request for comment) but its creator, well-known anti-masker Chris Saccoccia, simply started another one. Saccoccia still has an Instagram account with over 130,000 followers, where he regularly urges Canadians to break COVID-19 regulations and spread conspiracies.
The company reviewed and deleted content from other anti-mask and anti-lockdown pages flagged by VICE World News but allowed the pages to exist.
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