Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
Misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines can appear almost anywhere: from an uncle’s social media post to a trusted press commentator. But where does it come from and why do some myths spread more than others?
With help from internet research firm Graphika, NPR analyzed the rise of a persistent set of lies about COVID-19 vaccines: that they can affect women fertility.
Despite a mountain of scientific evidence showing that vaccines are safe and effective, the misinformation persists.
Graphika’s data analysis tools allow them to track key points at which information is shared or amplified. This can illustrate how often these types of lies go viral.
The events described here represent a major amplifying event for this misinformation, but they are by no means the only source of lies about female fertility and the vaccine. Claims about fertility and coronavirus vaccines date back to at least December, and fertility claims about other vaccines go back even further, in some cases decades.
But the events of earlier this year illustrate how disinformation can spread in a non-linear fashion, with many different players adding threads to a web of fake content.
So here is the life cycle of a lie.
Step 1: Start with a kernel of truth
After receiving the COVID-19 vaccine this spring, “a lot of women have noticed heavy periods,” says Alice Lu-Culligan, a doctoral candidate at Yale University who studies the immune system and reproductive health.
Lu-Culligan says immune cells play an important role in menstruation, so it’s possible the vaccine may temporarily alter this process. “It’s very plausible that you could have typical menstrual cycle abnormalities,” she says.
Other scientists agree that it is possible. A team of medical anthropologists is conducting a survey of women’s experiences with vaccines, which has so far had more than 120,000 responses, according to Kathryn Clancy, a researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. They learned that thousands of women have unusually heavy flow after vaccination, and some older people have also experienced breakthrough bleeding.
Unfortunately, making a definitive connection has proven difficult, in large part because trials for the new vaccines have never asked women about their periods. Because there is so much natural variation in a woman’s period from month to month, a controlled clinical trial would be needed to try to establish if this happened. “When you don’t collect this data during the clinical trial, you really lose an opportunity to study it in a controlled manner,” says Lu-Culligan.
The lost opportunity for scientists has become an opening for anti-vaccine campaigners, says Melanie Smith, former director of analysis for Graphika. “In the most successful cases of disinformation that we see, there is always this lack of knowledge,” she says.
Step 2: Find an influencer to spread doubts and questions
In the absence of firm data, stories of disrupted menstrual cycles began to appear in forums and groups. Many just wondered if this had happened to others and if they should be worried. But there was one Facebook group in particular that turned out to be important.
“It’s literally called ‘Side Effects of COVID-19 Vaccine’,” Smith said. There were a lot of posts from ordinary people there, looking for answers, but anti-vaccine activists were also part of the group.
One of the people reading this page was an anti-vaccine activist named Naomi Wolf. Once best known for her writings on feminism, Wolf has, over the years, drifted into anti-vaccine advocacy. “She’s a very popular influencer in what we call the pseudo-medical community,” Smith said.
Wolf is not a doctor, and yet on April 19 she tweeted a link to the Facebook group with this message: “Hundreds of women on this page say they are bleeding / clotting after vaccination, or that they bleed oddly. AROUND vaccinated women. Unconfirmed, needs further investigation, but lots of reporting. “
Smith points out that Wolf is using an old trick: by saying that something “needs more investigation,” she raises doubts, without presenting facts that can be refuted.
MARK FELIX / AFP / AFP via Getty Images
Step 3: Pile Into Some Related Myths
Wolf’s tweet also seamlessly inserted a myth: that vaccinated women could somehow pass side effects to unvaccinated people.
Alice Lu-Culligan says that is absolutely not the case. She adds that this myth seems to echo another popular lie: that somehow women who live together can influence each other.
Wolf kept tweeting and accumulating more misinformation in the form of questions: Can vaccines cause infertility? Miscarriages?
This slam went way beyond disrupting menstrual cycles, raising the stakes dramatically. Alice Lu-Culligan says the evidence overwhelmingly shows that vaccines don’t cause these problems. “At this point, several million women have been vaccinated and there are no scientific reports of infertility,” she said.
The CDC also says available data shows the vaccines are safe for pregnant or breastfeeding women.
Step 4: Make waves in the mainstream media
Days after Wolf started tweeting about vaccines and fertility, other influencers started finding out and a few click-bait websites wrote fake news.
But it was the real news that gave the lies their greatest momentum. About a week after the first tweets, a private Miami school, Centner Academy, announced that it would no longer allow vaccinated teachers to enter class. He said there were too many questions about whether the vaccine could spread to unvaccinated mothers and children.
The school’s CEO, Leila Centner, is an established anti-vaccine campaigner, so her decision was not surprising. But the ban still made national news.
“For some people it’s crazy and for others they question it because they want to know more, so for everyone there is a reason why you click on it”, explains Tara Kirk Sell, principal investigator at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. She says this perfectly illustrates how a sufficiently developed lie can use mainstream media to get an extra boost.
“Covering it up, which is important for people to know what kind of stuff is going on there, the other side of it is that the lie spreads faster and more people see it and more people detect it. “, says Sell.
And that’s what happened. The history of the Miami school has led to worldwide coverage. “This is when we start to see Spanish and Portuguese content, in particular,” says Smith of Graphika.
The lies were superimposed on the school news. Outlets in other languages have started reporting that the vaccine can spread from person to person or cause fertility problems.
Step 5: Morph to fit the messenger
Finally, since vaccine misinformation is not data driven, it can mutate to fit any political message or worldview.
The myths of vaccines about fertility and reproduction are particularly powerful because they affect a large part of the population, especially when they incorporate myths about the vaccinated. women spread the side effects. “It’s kind of a universal theory in some ways, and the potential impact is on everyone, rather than a specific community,” Smith said.
In the weeks after the first wave of coverage, others used these ideas to attract audiences. Conservative commentator Candace Owens made the connection between vaccines and menstruation on Instagram. In a six-minute video questioning vaccine safety, Owens never directly repeated the fertility lies, but neither did he refute them.
Far-right commentator Alex Jones has incorporated the vaccine lies into his conspiracy theories on Google and Facebook, which he says are trying to depopulate the earth. “It’s not just that you’re going to be sterile, you won’t be able to have children,” Jones said on a recent broadcast. “You won’t be able to eat beef anymore.
Step 6: Repeat the cycle with new lies
By the end of June, fertility lies had spread everywhere, from France to Brazil. But then, according to researcher Melanie Smith, they started to disappear.
“It seems to have kind of fallen by the wayside in terms of the COVID-19 news cycle that is unfolding in these spaces on the internet,” she says.
And this is the last lesson on lies: they don’t stay. They attract attention, raise questions and doubts, but there is no substance there. So once they shock whoever they’re supposed to hire, they’re gone.
Or more accurately, they are replaced by an incredible new story.