Anti-vaccination groups target local media after suppressing social media

On WFXG-TV’s Friday night news service in Augusta, Georgia, one of Fox’s subsidiaries reported exciting news: The city’s Charlie Norwood VA Health Center will be among the first Veteran Venues to receive a starting dose of Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19. vaccine. The shots would be weapons this week.

But then the story soon focused on a small group of “worried mothers” who kept big black and red signs outside the hospital, with messages familiar to people following the vaccination movement and its dangerously misleading situation.

One young girl held up a message that had long been credible by medical experts: “Vaccines can cause injury and death.” The woman interviewed in the segment falsely claimed that the components of the vaccine were unknown and that its manufacturers had “skipped” the experimental steps. The station’s website also featured a segment that added a policy for readers to learn more about the “known and unknown risks of vaccination,” as well as a single link that led users to an error page.

The station provided a platform that public health professionals and misinformation experts dread.

“This is a problem of information laundering,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetoric studies at Syracuse University who studies media manipulation. “If you make the harmful position reasonable, more people who would otherwise be unwilling to believe it are willing to view it as a two-sided issue.”

WFXG news director David Williams declined to comment.

On online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube, they repel misinformation about Covid-19 vaccinations, some anti-vaccination activists turn to rarely visited real events, and try to broaden their message to local news and give them the opportunity to raise money through donations. . This tactic, known to professionals as information laundering, seems to show some appeal.

Local news stations from California to Maine, which largely stopped covering childhood immunization opponents, highlighted the anti-vaccination movement’s response to Covid-19 restrictions and solutions by outlining their protests and giving activists a microphone to spread misinformation.

Experts have warned that credible coverage of anti-vaccination and misleading information, which does not explicitly state that the information is false, could cause real harm, including hesitation to vaccinate people, which could jeopardize the pandemic response. According to the Pew Research Center, local television news is a particularly important source of information about the pandemic, as it is the most popular source for Americans.

Local media coverage is part of the plan, said Joshua Coleman, a California vaccination activist who has been involved in organizing and documenting vaccination events over the past few years. Coleman confirmed that social media data suggests that the epidemic has led to an increase in anti-vaccination communities and said protests against closure offer a way to bring the matter to a new audience. But he also felt that online platforms were making an effort to reduce the spread of vaccine misinformation.

It offers a solution if you can cover your events in the media.

“I’m excited when that happens,” Coleman said. “Especially when the signals are shown, because if we catch those messages, that’s what we want.”

NBC News found examples of at least nine local news portals that have taken the bait.

A coordinated November incident in which activists in several states burdened busy overpasses with banners that undermine Covid-19 vaccinations, falsely claiming they had not “tested a placebo,” also caught the attention of several local press outlets.

In Kennewick, Washington, a woman told CBS’s affiliate, KEPR, “We want people to do their own research … it can’t be vaccinated.” The scene ran three times in one day. The online version of the story was removed from the KEPR website following an interest from NBC News. (The connected station is a local TV broadcaster that is not owned by one of the national broadcasting networks but has a contractual agreement with one of the networks.)

Tom Yazwinski, KEPR’s news director, declined to comment.

A similar coverage of a transparent event organized by Montanans for vaccine selection was broadcast in Billings, Montana by at least five local stations in the state.

There were few segments of physicians or public health representatives against vaccination misinformation. Even a San Diego station owned and operated by NBC News’s parent company, NBCUniversal, such as KNSD-TV, framed the activists at an event in San Diego as part of a valid opposition to the vaccination decided by the FDA. safe and effective. The chyrons at the bottom of the screen wrote “COVID-19 VACCINE DEBATE” and “San Diegans shared on vaccination”. The segment was also posted on the KNSD-TV website.

Greg Dawson, KNSD-TV’s news director, declined to comment.

Each of the outlets has called anti-vaccination activists advocates of “medical freedom” or “informed choice,” using similar obscure language the movement has adopted in recent years to avoid online content moderators and draw attention to mainstream media.

News organizations also need to counter typical news reports, such as protests with those that support science and vaccinations for people, Phillips suggested.

“Vaccine parents need to have a say in this,” he said. “Instead of local journalists immediately going to a parent screaming from the opposition.”

Prior to Covid-19, Coleman said his events, in which Star Wars costume activists protested outside Disneyland or picketers vaccinated scientists around vaccination conferences, received little attention from the media.

“We kept ignoring it,” he said. “I thought our event was definitely newsworthy, but they didn’t. They didn’t think so.

Finally, with traction, Coleman says he plans to hold events in the coming weeks in hospitals and other venues where Covid-19 vaccines are being administered, although he’s not quite sure where they will be yet.

“I think we’ll just see it, but it’s easy to find out,” he said. “The news is going to be great. We’ll see where they are and go there.”