This Week in Corona Scams, we must talk about the COVID-19 vaccines again. As we’ve been warning for months, the anti-vaccine movement’s disinformation campaign has wreaked havoc on our public health. The Biden administration finally called it what it is last week, but what are they really doing about it?
“The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.”
– President Joe Biden, at a White House press gaggle on July 16
Last Friday, President Joe Biden finally publicly acknowledged what many of us have been warning about since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to Biden, “[Social media disinformation is] killing people. […] The only pandemic we have is among the unvaccinated. And they’re killing people.” Yet by Monday, Biden made a new statement that seemed to go much easier on Facebook than his original Friday statement.
Of course, Facebook and other “Big Tech” social media “influencers of the influencers” do not appreciate what Biden has been saying… But they’re probably more appreciative of what the Biden administration is (not) doing. Though Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a formal health advisory that declares disinformation on COVID-19 and the vaccines as an “imminent and insidious threat,” it’s unclear at best whether the Biden administration will match this tough talk with real regulatory action. And while Biden’s recent executive order promoting stronger antitrust enforcement appears promising, the Biden administration’s lack of sufficient staff and Congress’ repeated failure to match “anti-Big Tech tough talk” with real legislative action threaten to derail Biden’s antitrust agenda unless Democrats change this dynamic soon. (Editor’s Note: As I write this, we have breaking news that Biden is nominating Jonathan Kanter for Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust.)
Yeah I don’t think people are reacting to Biden declaring that he won’t “hold FB accountable” but the general feeling that this admin seems completely toothless in the face of all the elements that nearly overthrew the election a few months ago
— DEFUND & ABOLISH POLICE, REFUND OUR COMMUNITIES (@BreeNewsome) July 19, 2021
Facebook controls the data and hides the truth:
"Facebook still isn’t sharing a key statistic: how many people have seen vaccine misinformation on the platform."https://t.co/ceG7fewNcK
— Accountable Tech (@accountabletech) July 19, 2021
As we’ve noted before, and as The New Republic’s Jacob Silverman explained earlier this week, Facebook’s disinformation crisis is rooted in Facebook’s very business model of nonstop surveillance to fuel the monetized algorithm that prioritizes content that keeps users on Facebook’s platforms (including separately branded platforms like Instagram) longer. It typically doesn’t matter how false and/or threatening the content is. If it helps Facebook sell more ads, it shoots onto the trending lists and onto thousands (or perhaps, millions) of users’ feeds.
As we’ve previously discussed, Facebook is not the only problematic “Big Tech” social media player. Alphabet/Google’s YouTube has become another hub for COVID-19 disinformation, and I can personally attest to how much misleading ivermectin-heavy content I’ve run into there. ByteDance’s TikTok has become another hub for COVID-19 disinformation, and it still looks like pro-science TikTokers have to do all the heavy lifting themselves in combating the disinformation on that platform.
What’s the point of the COVID-19 vaccines if breakthrough infections are happening?
Speaking of TikTok and COVID-19 vaccine rumors, let’s clear the air on the latest chatter about breakthrough infections and vaccine efficacy. Throughout social media, and increasingly in the mainstream media, there’s growing speculation over whether the Delta variant has already rendered the COVID-19 vaccines useless, or at least overpowered the vaccines to the point where vaccinated people are the most potent vectors spreading the virus. And because the CDC does not fully track breakthrough infections (just hospitalizations and deaths), that has further fueled speculation on breakthrough infections and whether the CDC is engaging in a “cover-up to hide the truth about vaccine failure”.
Some anti-vaxxers have increasingly pointed to Israel as proof that “vaccines don’t work”. But as usual, anti-vaxxers distort Israel’s COVID-19 statistics and engage in base rate fallacy to create the illusion that “vaccines don’t work”. In reality, the Israeli COVID-19 data we have point to a more complex picture of the Delta variant’s spread leading to more breakthrough infections. However unvaccinated Israelis remain far more likely to contract COVID-19 than fully vaccinated Israelis, and the data we have so far point to breakthrough infections being less likely to result in severe illness and death than infections involving unvaccinated people.
Also, keep in mind that these Israeli statistics are just one data point. As we noted last week, separate studies from France, the U.K., and here in the U.S have all shown better results for the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines. Ultimately, what these study results and even the Israeli statistics show is that these COVID-19 vaccines work in preventing COVID-19 deaths and hospitalizations. We also have evidence showing that COVID-19 transmissions drop in areas where the vaccination rates are high, and that more specifically even fully vaccinated patients who suffer breakthrough infections ultimately have lower viral loads that are not as conducive to further spread as the higher viral loads of infected unvaccinated patients.
So yes, breakthrough infections are occurring, and the vaccines we have are not 100% guaranteed to prevent further infections as long as we continue to have a critical mass of people who are not fully vaccinated. This does not mean that “the vaccines don’t work”. Rather, this means we need more vaccine uptake, and this means we should continue to utilize proven best practices for public health safety (like masks and social distancing) in riskier environments and in areas with low vaccination rates (such as, sadly, Southern Nevada).
Why do so many Americans fall for COVID-19 and vaccine disinformation? Here’s where we return to the issues of where they find information, and why they naturally distrust “establishment” institutions.
The real story behind health misinformation online is 20 years long.
1. Paywalls prevent accurate information from reaching mass audiences.
2. Antivax activists, like other fringe groups, organized on available tech.
3. Antivax activists spent time sowing doubt to recruit.
— Joan Donovan, 🦫 (@BostonJoan) July 20, 2021
Since we can see for ourselves that anti-vaxxers are lying about COVID-19 and the vaccines, why are so many of our fellow Americans falling for these lies? As we noted above, the “Big Tech” companies’ monetized algorithms play a major role in this Infodemic. But in order to fully grasp the source and the severity of this Infodemic, we must also examine why so many Americans are more willing to believe the lies they can watch “for free” on their social media feeds over the truth that’s filed behind paywalls.
Did you catch that last part? Not everyone can afford subscriptions to “prestige journalism” outlets like The Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and HBO/HBOMax. And according to an April 2021 Pew Research Center report, 23% of Americans still lack broadband internet service, and these figures are even higher for younger Americans, rural Americans, the working poor, and communities of color. Sure, we have some public TV/radio networks and additional local media outlets (like ours!) that are trying to fill these voids, but we can only go so far with limited resources, limited internet access in certain communities we’re trying to reach, and “Big Tech” social media giants favoring outrage marketing based propaganda content farms that are explicitly designed with the algorithms in mind over fact-based content that doesn’t look as “sexy”.
There’s overlap in MO too; it’s worth looking into.
The other big underexplored topic I wonder about is the opioid epidemic. MO was devastated by the Sacklers’ deadly lies and people naturally do not trust big pharma, and this distrust extends to any new drug — or new vaccines.
— Sarah Kendzior (@sarahkendzior) July 20, 2021
Another thing to keep in mind is that America’s overall faith in our institutions remains near historic lows, and it’s not too hard to figure out why. From governmental corruption scandals to media outlets‘ own predatory environments, and from pharmaceutical companies that profited off people’s pains to insurance companies’ hijinks in the pursuit of profit, we just have to step back and assess the big picture to see why “corona scammers” use “truth ‘they’ don’t want you to know!” messaging to hook customers/victims into their scams.
As we’ve explained on these pages before, the “rigged system” that’s polluted with inequity and corruption fuels people’s disgust and distrust of the very institutions they identify as part of the “rigged system”. Instead of indulging in any more navel gazing over why former President Donald Trump says what he says, we need to work on rebuilding community trust and actually giving Americans a more viable alternative to Trumpism. And instead of indulging in any more navel gazing over whether Trump will ever stop contradicting himself on the COVID-19 vaccines, we have to actually address the root of this Infodemic.
This vaccine refusal crisis did not “come out of nowhere”. We must confront the root of this Infodemic if we actually want to overcome it.
There seems to be a concerted effort today by Fox's daytime news shows to promote the vaccines to its audience.
Dr. Marc Siegel says "the Delta variant needs to be a wake-up call to get vaccinated."
Anchor John Roberts then directs viewers to the government vaccine website. pic.twitter.com/T5b21nXCfe
— Justin Baragona (@justinbaragona) July 19, 2021
If I am reading this right, the company that has all the data when it comes to selling you comfy slippers does not have the data when it comes to COVID disinformation? https://t.co/HXnHBnr8sq
— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) July 19, 2021
The sudden surge in pro-vaccine content on Fox News is something to behold, but we really should not forget how top Fox News stars like Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and Laura Ingraham have led the charge in amplifying COVID-19 disinformation on that network. The “Big Tech” conglomerates’ claims that they’re directing users to trustworthy COVID-19 vaccine resources may have some factual basis, but they still won’t provide any honest answers on how many people are exposed to disinformation on their social media platforms. As much as some of us want to believe that “this is fine”, our COVID-19 outlook still looks like that famous meme of the dog sipping coffee in the fiery house.
Just because there’s no apparent “quick fix” or “easy way out” of both the COVID-19 pandemic and disinformation Infodemic doesn’t mean we should not even try to help people out of this vortex of doom. It just means that instead of hoping that some Trump statement or Facebook warning label will provide an “easy way out”, we must utilize the trusted community relationships that still exist and rebuild a larger culture of community trust to find our way out of this pandemic and prepare to take on the next pandemic.
If you have further questions about COVID-19 and your health, check Immunize Nevada for more information on vaccine availability in your area, check Nevada Health Response for testing in your area, and check Nevada 211 for more health care resources. If you’re in need of additional aid, check the Nevada Current’s and Battle Born Progress’ resource guides. If you can afford proper treatment and you are fortunate enough to help others in need, please donate to larger operations like Direct Relief and Mutual Aid Disaster Relief, and to local groups like Three Square. And for goodness sake, please maintain best practices to help stop the spread.
Editor’s Note: In our next COVID-19 Update, we’ll go into further detail on the Clark County Commission’s new indoor mask mandate for workers only, how we got here, why it’s such a head-scratcher of a policy, and whether it will have any effect on our COVID-19 outbreak.
The cover photo was taken by me.