Friday night’s newscast on WFXG-TV in Augusta, Georgia, a Fox subsidiary, featured exciting news: the city’s Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center would be one of the first Veterans Affairs locations to deliver the first doses of the Pfizer BioNTech Covid-19. vaccine. There would be shooting this week.
But then the story quickly turned to a small group of “concerned mothers” holding large black and red signs outside the hospital with messages known to people who followed the anti-vaccination movement and its dangerously misleading stance.
A young girl held up a sign with a message long ago discredited by medical experts: “Vaccines can cause injury and death.” One woman interviewed for this segment falsely claimed that the ingredients of the vaccine were unknown and that the makers ‘skipped’ the steps in the process. The station’s website also featured the segment, with a guideline for readers to learn about the “known and unknown risks of the vaccine,” and a single link that took users to an error page.
The station had provided the kind of platform that public health workers and disinformation experts fear.
“This is the problem of information laundering,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communications and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University who studies media manipulation. “If you make a harmful position sound reasonable, then more people who otherwise would not be inclined to believe it, may be willing to see it as a two-sided issue.”
WFXG’s news director, David Williams, declined to comment.
With online platforms like Facebook and YouTube tackling misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines, some anti-vaccination activists are turning to low-attendance real-world events and looking for local news outlets to reinforce their message and give them a chance to make money through donations. This tactic, known to experts as information laundering, appears to be gaining momentum.
From California to Maine, local news outlets that had largely stopped beating opponents of childhood immunization have highlighted the anti-vaccination movement’s response to Covid-19’s restrictions and solutions by covering their protests and giving activists a microphone to dissent to spread.
Experts have warned that gullible reporting of marginal and misleading misinformation about anti-vaccines – reports that do not explicitly state that the information is false – could cause real harm, including a reluctance in some people to get vaccinated, threatening to undermine the pandemic response . Local television news is a particularly important source of information about the pandemic because it is consistently the most popular source Americans look to for news, according to the Pew Research Center.
Coverage in the local media is all part of the plan, said Joshua Coleman, a California anti-vaccine activist who has spent the past few years organizing and documenting anti-vaccine events. Coleman confirmed what the social media data suggests – that the pandemic has spawned a growth in anti-vaccination communities, and said protests against blocking provided a way to introduce the cause to a new audience. But he also felt the sting of online platforms’ efforts to reduce the spread of vaccine misinformation.
The ability to post media coverage of its events provides a solution.
“I get turned on when that happens,” said Coleman. “Especially if they show the signs, because if we get some of those messages out, that’s what we want.”
NBC News found examples of at least nine local news outlets taking the bait.
A coordinated event in November in which activists in multiple states covered busy overpasses with banners undermining the Covid-19 vaccines and falsely claiming they were not “placebo-tested” drew the attention of several local news outlets.
In Kennewick, Washington, a woman told CBS affiliate station KEPR, “We want people to do their own research … you can’t reverse the vaccination.” The spot was shown three times in one day. The online version of the story was removed from KEPR’s website following a question from NBC News. (An affiliated station is a local TV channel that is not owned by one of the national broadcasters, but has a contractual agreement with one of the networks.)
Tom Yazwinski, KEPR’s news director, declined to comment.
Similar coverage of a banner event hosted by Montanans for Vaccine Choice in Billings, Montana, was broadcast by at least five local stations across the state.
There were few segments with doctors or public health advocates to counter the misinformation about vaccination. Even those who did, like KNSD-TV, a San Diego station owned and operated by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, framed the activists at an event in San Diego as part of a valid backlash against a vaccine that the FDA has decided to be safe and effective. The chyrons at the bottom of the screen read “COVID-19 VACCINE DEBATE” and “San Diegans distributed on vaccine.” The segment was also featured on KNSD-TV’s website.
Greg Dawson, the KNSD-TV news director, declined to comment.
All outlets described the anti-vaccination activists as advocates of “medical freedom” or “informed choice,” and used similar obscuring language the movement has adopted in recent years to evade online content moderators and draw on the mainstream media.
News organizations should also offset typical news stories, such as a protest, with stories showing people support science and vaccines, Phillips suggested.
“Pro-vaccine parents should also have a say in this,” she said. “Instead of local reporters going straight to the parent yelling in the opposition.”
Before Covid-19, Coleman said, his events – in which activists in “Star Wars” costumes protested outside Disneyland or picketers chased scientists around vaccine conferences – received little media attention.
“We were ignored,” he said. “I thought our event was definitely newsworthy, but they didn’t. They didn’t think so. “
Finally gaining traction, Coleman says he plans to host events in hospitals and other locations where Covid-19 vaccines are administered in the coming weeks, although he’s not quite sure where they will be.
“I think we’ll just see, but it’s easy to find out,” he said. The news will make it a point. We will see where they are and we will go there. “