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The Facebook videos were short but unsettling. One, posted on the profile of Indiana resident Shawn Skelton, shows her shuddering on what looks like a hospital bed, an exhausted look on her face. In another, Skelton spends over a minute sticking her tongue out as it writhes oddly. Three other videos – all just a few seconds long – were posted by Louisiana-based Brant Griner, and feature his mother Angelia Gipson Desselle violently trembling and struggling to walk in a dimly-lit hospital room.
The videos all made the same claims: both Skelton and Desselle had been vaccinated for Covid-19 shortly before developing their tremors, and the vaccine, they alleged, was to blame. There is no evidence that this is the case. But, on Facebook, the truth rarely matters. For days, the videos spread unchecked, racking up millions of views and tens of thousands of comments. Devoid of context and, even now, challenging to factcheck, their spread is the latest salvo in the struggle to debunk vaccine disinformation and misinformation. To date, the videos have been shared by Facebook groups that push natural and alternative medicines, anti-vaxxers, 5G conspiracy theorists and by the far right.
According to CrowdTangle, an insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, Skelton’s first video, published on January 7, had been watched by over 4.4 million people by January 19. On Twitter, the video has been shared 10,300 times, raking in 1.4 million views, according to Lydia Morrish, a social media journalist at First Draft.
CrowdTangle data shows that one of Griner’s videos, first posted on January 10, was viewed more than 5.2 million times. Although some commenters were sceptical, most of the comments left under the videos were from people who seemed worried about the alleged effects of the vaccine; some extolled the benefits of faith healing, others shared big pharma conspiracy theories and hawked products that they said might help the women recover. One commenter expressed hope that doctors will find a cure for the vaccine.
As the videos took Facebook by storm they started to seep outwards, cropping up on WhatsApp groups and on the messaging app Telegram. Here, they bounced from channel to channel, ripping through far-right and QAnon-adjacent groups that have been burgeoning on the platform in the weeks following the Capitol Hill insurrection. One version of the Desselle video circulated on Telegram has been watched more than 100,000 times. Junk news and alternative outlets featured stories about both Skelton and Desselle, and the latter’s story was reported on in a segment on RT, a news network controlled by the Russian state.
The sheer shock value of the videos perhaps made their spread understandable, but also dangerous in the midst of a pandemic, and at the very outset of a public health campaign that is already grappling with unprecedented levels of vaccine hesitancy in some countries. Especially when few of the claims made in the videos can be verified.
Skelton, an employee of a care home in Oakland City, Indiana, claims to have received the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine on January 4. The tremors, she says in a Facebook Live from January 13 – where she contorts on a bench wearing a pink jumper – started three days later. Skelton did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The care home where she works did not reply to multiple emails enquiring whether Skelton had indeed received the vaccine.
Skelton herself published a picture of what appeared to be a US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) vaccination card on her Facebook profile on January 16. But the vaccine lot that she was administered according to the card does not appear to have been linked to any report of vaccine adverse reaction in Indiana, according to VAERS, the reporting system run by the CDC and the Food and Drugs Administration. In fact, all eight cases of adverse reactions to any Covid-19 vaccines reported in Indiana since the start of 2021 involved people over 60 – Skelton, according to her vaccination card, is in her forties. Anyone can report adverse reactions to VAERS, including the vaccine recipients themselves, but doctors and practitioners are strongly encouraged to do so when they encounter what appears to be an adverse reaction.
And according to Skelton’s posts, the doctors that visited her when she was hospitalised for her tremors on January 11 ruled out that the Moderna vaccine could have played a role. One doctor from Deaconess Orthopaedic Neuroscience Hospital, the facility where Skelton was treated, though not someone who had treated her personally, told the local press that shaking is not one of the known side effects of the Moderna vaccine. According to the CDC, side effects can include pain or swelling at the injection site or fever, chills, or a headache, all of which resolve in a few days. Both Deaconess Hospital and Indiana’s health department declined to discuss Skelton’s case, citing patient privacy laws.
Skelton wrote on Facebook that doctors chalked up her shaking to conversion disorder, a mental condition triggered by extreme stress. In a Facebook post on January 12, Skelton said she remained unconvinced that stress was the cause of her condition. Since then, she has been posting about using CBD oil and “detoxing”. A friend of Skelton’s has also started a fundraising campaign, asking for $4,000 to pay for a doctor able to provide her with the “answers she deserves” about her condition. As of January 22, it has raised $4,560 from 127 donors.
This is what will happen to Covid-19 when the pandemic is over
Like Skelton, Louisiana-based Desselle received her Covid-19 vaccine, the Pfizer/BioNTech one, because she works in a healthcare facility. According to subsequent videos posted on Facebook, and interviews her son Brant Griner gave to RT and to fact-checking website Politifact, she received her jab in New Orleans on January 5. A picture included as a still in one of the videos shows Desselle holding up a pamphlet about the vaccination campaign in what looks like a medical practice. She then claims to have developed symptoms – abnormal heartbeat, trembling, difficulty moving, pounding headaches – on January 9, when she was admitted to hospital. In a video published from what appears to be her hospital bed, Desselle says that, after her hospitalisation, she was diagnosed with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a congenital heart condition that can cause an irregular heartbeat. She does not explain whether the doctors who visited her linked her symptoms to the syndrome or to the vaccine.
In another video, she says that her doctor thinks that her symptoms were “related to the vaccine. He said there are some metals in the vaccine that have done this to my body.” The Pfizer vaccine contains no metal. A Pfizer spokesperson says that neuromuscular disorders are not among the known side effects of its vaccine.
Neither Griner nor Desselle responded to requests for an interview; a receptionist at the clinic where Desselle works said that no one was available for comment. In their videos, and when speaking to the press, Griner and Desselle declined to disclose where the vaccine had been administered, and the names of the facility and the doctors treating Desselle, saying they wanted to protect their privacy.
VAERS data do not show any cases of adverse reaction in Louisiana in the last month whose symptoms resemble Desselle’s, nor feature reports of adverse reactions linked to the Pfizer vaccine batch she mentions in one of the videos. In January 2021, only four women in Louisiana appear to have suffered from an adverse reaction to the Covid-19 vaccines, and all of them were older than 50 – Desselle said in a video that she is 45. A spokesperson for the CDC says that the health protection agency has “no adverse event data regarding a case of this nature out of Louisiana”.
Mindy Faciane, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Health, says that the only case of an adverse reaction leading to hospitalisation in Louisiana, as of January 18, concerned a person whose “side effects were gastrointestinal distress and lightheadedness”. The person, she adds, was treated, released, and has since recovered. “We would not count any case as a serious adverse effect until the investigation was completed and it was confirmed,” Faciane says. “To date, there remains one confirmed vaccine-related serious adverse event in Louisiana.”
Brant Griner, Desselle’s son, appears to have been taken aback by the viral success of his videos. On January 16, the videos vanished from Facebook. In a subsequent video Griner explained that he had taken them down at his mother’s request. “We didn’t expect that the video would get almost five million views in a couple of days, she is overwhelmed,” he said. He added that when Desselle first sent him the videos, “she didn’t know [the condition] was going to be a fast thing – something that would go away in a day or two.” The videos, which had seemingly been set to private, were briefly made public some days later, and then again made private, or deleted, by Griner on January 21.
A Facebook spokesperson says that the company will “remove Covid-19 misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm, including false information about approved vaccines” and adds that between March and October 2020 the company removed more than 12 million pieces of content of this nature from Facebook and Instagram. But the videos of Desselle and Skelton highlight another challenge for the fight against misinformation. In the chasm between their rapid viral spread and slower, more considered scientific response, the damage has already been done.
How to stop the next pandemic
Even before the global Covid-19 vaccination roll-out started, experts had warned about the danger of “incidental illness” – conditions manifesting themselves shortly after vaccination, but which are not per se caused by the vaccines.
Any vaccine administered on such a scale is bound to trigger some little-known side effect, or – more insidiously – to be administered to people who will later experience some health problems that are not linked to the jab. According to Luis Ostrosky, a professor of infectious diseases at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth in Houston, Texas, even looking at raw VAERS data is not sufficient to draw conclusions. “We’re gonna catch a lot of events that happen after you’re vaccinated that may or may not be related to the vaccines,” he says. As more reports come in, health authorities will search for clues to sort the wheat of side effects from the chaff of unrelated incidents and misreports. “It’s only that sort of analysis – looking at patterns – that will allow us to establish causality.”
Ostrosky says that while the roll-out is underway and the data is still being gathered, the best way to make sense of claims of adverse events is by looking at data from clinical trials. In his experience as a director for epidemiology in a hospital that has vaccinated over 60,000 people to date, the most common side effects of the Covid-19 vaccines are skin rashes and flu-like symptoms, both of which are temporary. “The bottom line is that this is an unprecedented rollout of a vaccine with a level of scrutiny and reporting that has never been seen. And science is working: we’re starting to see real-time reporting of incidence of side effects.”
But such scientific certainties will not be enough to confront the spread of vaccine disinformation and misinformation, in all its forms. According to Carl Miller, research director at the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at the think tank Demos, the problem requires something that goes beyond mere fact-checking on a platform such as Facebook, which has 2.7 billion monthly active users. What we need to do with this kind of disinformation is pin it down and stamp it out at a local level. “The reason why someone would accept disinformation is that they come from a community that has a history of distrusting government and ‘big pharma’,” Miller says. “That’s where this comes from, and that is why we need to go beyond debunking.” He suggests using outreach campaigns to try and confront the root causes of conspiratorial thinking.
But, in the midst of a global pandemic, with disinformation and misinformation barrelling across Facebook, there is little time for outreach. Copies of Desselle and Skelton’s videos are still live on Facebook and beyond. On January 22, searching Griner’s name brought up 69 videos of Desselle in hospital. Skelton’s posts are still live; but copies of her videos have already been reposted on over 80 Facebook groups, pages, and profiles.
Some of those videos have been labelled as “false” or “missing context” by Facebook moderators. Many haven’t. More than a fortnight after the videos were first uploaded, the footage has taken on its final form: as a weapon of misinformation, devoid of context, that will be used to baselessly erode faith in science. “The most foundational problem we have when it comes to social media is that, on the one side, we have facts and stats that are boring and dry and hard to understand, and, on the other, we have human stories,” Miller says. “You have to confront that with stats saying that vaccines are safe.”
Gian Volpicelli is an investigative reporter at WIRED. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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