Liz Willner runs OpenVAERS, a huge anti-vax website based in Piedmont, California. (Photos by LEA SUZUKI/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images and Facebook)
An anti-vaxxer website which scrapes and misrepresents data from a government-run database has been spreading misinformation like wildfire through anti-vax communities for the last month. Now for the first time, the identity of the woman running the site has been revealed.OpenVAERS, a site set up in early 2021 to spread vaccine misinformation by misusing federal data, is being operated by Liz Willner, 55, who lives in the wealthy enclave of Piedmont, a community completely surrounded by Oakland, California, according to new research conducted by AI-powered misinformation tracking group Logically, and shared exclusively with VICE News.
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Willner, who did not respond to VICE News’ repeated efforts to contact her by phone, email and social media, admitted this week to Logically researchers that she was operating the site, though claimed she was one of a team of people behind it.By presenting unverified data as fact, OpenVAERS has become one of the most powerful tools in the anti-vaxxer community. For example, the site on Thursday declared that over 12,000 people had died as a result of taking a COVID-19 vaccine. While that many deaths may have been reported to VAERS, the figure is completely unverified and proves no connection between the vaccine and the subsequent fatalities.But the site’s slick design breaks down the data into easily digestible pieces of information, allegedly showing the breakdown for each vaccine, gender and age range, all perfectly designed for sharing online.
Willner did not immediately respond to follow-up questions about how big a team was behind the site or who the other members of the team were.Willner’s public posts on social media show that she began posting anti-vaccine content back in April 2019, after she reported that her child suffered an injury she linked to a vaccine.Willner, who has worked as a web designer, Initially focused her anti-vax efforts on opposing Senate Bill 276 in California, a piece of legislation that was introduced to tighten vaccine exemption rules. By the time the pandemic began last year, Willner had built up a large network on social media which was willing to share her ideas.
OpenVAERS initially began as a project of a website called The Arkivist, which describes itself as a source for "uncensored voices and medical freedom news.” But in January this year, Willner launched a standalone site.Logically researchers were first able to identify Willner as the administrator of the site through WHOIS records before uncovering her social media accounts that were used to amplify the OpenVAERS site.The OpenVAERS website says the project was created because it found “the HHS site difficult to navigate and get information from.” Willner told Logically that her website “makes it more easily searchable and browseable. That's it. We do not understand why anyone would be opposed to transparency.”She did not respond to a follow-up question about the dangers of sharing unverified data without context.VAERS was set up in 1988 and is co-managed by the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). From the very beginning it has been weaponized by anti-vaxxers seeking to misrepresent its data. It is a passive reporting surveillance system, to which anyone can submit unverified reports; the purpose of presenting the raw data about reports of vaccine side effects is to allow researchers and the public to work with it. The site is quite easy to use; the main difference between it and OpenVAERS is that the federal site warns everyone who tries to access it that it “may contain information that is incomplete, inaccurate, coincidental, or unverifiable.”
While the OpenVAERs site does also contain the disclaimer, it is not shown to visitors automatically before they look at the data claiming to show deaths and hospitalizations. After being contacted by Logically and VICE News, Willner on Thursday appears to have added a new link to the CDC disclaimer above the decontextualized data—though visitors are still not shown it automatically.By scrubbing the data of all context and presenting it as fact, claiming to show how many people have died from the COVID-19 vaccine or have suffered from long-term irreversible damage post vaccination, OpenVAERS is carrying on the long tradition of anti-vaxxers misrepresenting public data.The official VAERS website has received around 800,000 visitors in the last six months. In comparison, according to Logically, OpenVAERS has attracted 1.23 million visitors to its site over the same period. And rather than trailing off, the traffic to the site has spiked significantly in the last month, leaving disinformation researchers very worried. “It's extremely concerning because it's only the tip of the iceberg, because of how viral this can go,” Nick Backovic, a senior analyst with Logically, told VICE News. “To see it spike that much, and to actually overtake the actual government website in traffic is huge and very concerning."The website traffic data from Logically show that the single biggest referrer of traffic to OpenVAERS is the right-wing conspiracy site the Gateway Pundit, which accounts for 30 percent of all visits. Another major referrer of traffic is the website of Vernon Coleman, a well-known conspiracy theorist who heavily promotes anti-vax narratives.
Social media is also a major booster of the site. The link to the OpenVAERS website has been shared over 20,000 times on Facebook, amassing over 50,000 interactions, since the site launched in January.But these figures only represent a fraction of the site’s true impact. The website is designed in such a way as to present the information in as easily accessible a format as possible. The result is that many people share decontextualized screenshots such as the one below on social media sites like on other sites like Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook.“By design, it's there for virality because it's so easy to share these screenshots, out of context, and people won't question it,” Backovic said. “It looks official, sounds official, because it also has this very similar name to the actual government website.”
But Willner was adamant that she was not doing anything wrong, telling Logically: “At no point have we ever taken data out of context. We have used the data exactly as it was intended to be used.”But those who track anti-vax misinformation do not agree. OpenVAERs is “misinformation 101,” Kolina Koltai, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for an Informed Public at the University of Washington, told VICE News in February when we first reported on the website. “It's decontextualization. I literally show examples like that in classes that I teach. You take a bit of information and you remove all the other context from it. That's common with almost any misinformation you can see,” Koltai added.