Recycled disinformation: the infertility myths that conspiracists are borrowing from the past

Alexandra Tyan

 

Justin Bieber, unwittingly, has become the latest poster boy for the anti-vax community. The 28-year-old singer recently announced on Instagram that he was suffering from a rare disorder — Ramsay Hunt Syndrome — that had left his face partially paralyzed and forced him to cancel several upcoming shows. The condition is caused by varicella, a virus that also leads to chickenpox and shingles. When it affects a nerve in the ear, it can lead to partial paralysis. 

Since Bieber’s video message, vaccine skeptics have been tweeting screenshots of his paralyzed face using hashtags like #vaccineinjuries and #vaccinedeaths. Some turned the screenshots into memes, with captions like “the face you make when they say ‘trust the science.’” Others scolded Bieber for requiring a Covid-19 vaccination certificate for his concerts in 2021 and even composed poems mocking his predicament.

There is no evidence that the singer’s condition is the result of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to epidemiologist Katrine Wallace. She explained in a Twitter thread that since the paralysis is caused by the varicella virus, the singer’s condition is in fact a vaccine-preventable disease. At 28, Bieber is likely too old to have received a varicella vaccine (which came into broad circulation in North America the mid-late 1990s) in childhood, but too young to be considered vulnerable to shingles. Vaccines against shingles are typically recommended for people ages 50 and older.

In other vaccine-related news, posts have been circulating online claiming that Pfizer, the pharmaceutical company behind the BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine, aims to halve the world’s population by 2023. A post in Spanish, originally shared on the messaging app Telegram and later reposted on Facebook, captioned “CEO PFIZER: OUR GOAL IS TO REDUCE 50% OF THE WORLD’S POPULATION BY 2023” includes a video excerpt of Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla talking at the World Economic Forum in May, reports Argentinian independent fact-checking service Chequeado. Similar posts have been spreading in English, Italian and French.

But the clip, in which Bourla supposedly says “by 2023 we would reduce the number of people in the world by 50%,” was edited. In the original video Bourla says “by 2023 we will reduce the number of people in the world that cannot afford our medicines by 50%.”

THE POWER OF INFERTILITY MYTHS 

BY MASHO LOMASHVILI

Almost immediately after Covid-19 vaccines were developed, conspiracy theories about the vaccines causing a “sterility epidemic” swarmed the internet. Some skeptics claimed that scientists had overlooked or ignored the side effects of vaccines. Others subscribed to the more sinister view that vaccines were a deliberate attempt at population control.

Groups that oppose abortion or even birth control are especially frequent purveyors of infertility myths related to vaccines. In 2014, a group of Catholic bishops in Kenya famously (and falsely) claimed that the tetanus vaccine was laced with hCG, a hormone that can cause infertility, as part of a secret WHO effort to control the country’s population. In the United States, with women’s reproductive rights dominating the news, false claims about the effects of abortion, contraception, and medications like Plan B causing infertility are being spread across the internet.

I discussed some of these claims with Tomas Sobotka, who leads the VID research group on Comparative European Demography at the Vienna Institute of Demography

“In highly developed countries, a huge majority of women have used contraception, the pill or the IUD in the course of their lives,” Sobotka tells me. “So, if this would be something threatening fertility at the population level, there would surely be hundreds of studies around that and the alarms would be ringing very high.”

Sobotka also pointed me to the roots of these claims. Back in 1970, there were some scares about the possible side effects of contraceptive pills. This triggered scientists to rethink the chemical makeup of the product. “The dose of hormones was much, much higher than in the current generation of hormonal contraception,” says Sobotka. Now, he adds, there is no systematic, clear evidence that contraception use or abortion are linked to infertility. 

Alongside the fact that these narratives are patently false, is the fact that the alternatives — whether it’s women refusing the tetanus vaccine, or women pursuing illegal abortions in the face of an all-out ban — present a clear and present threat to women’s health. 

So why is this such an effective narrative? 

“So many people dream of having a family. And that dream extends to their children. Being an expectant parent or if a person is trying to become pregnant there is a lot of hope and anxiety built into that,” says Rachel Salt, a Science Communicator at ScienceUpFirst, an initiative that counters misinformation online. ‘‘When websites or social media posts trigger big emotions, they are better at spreading fake news.”

WHAT WE’RE READING

Dig deeper into climate change disinfo: Last week, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue published a report analyzing disinformation surrounding global warming. The authors identified the main actors propelling these ideas, and showed how popular narratives have moved from outright climate denialism to delayism and distraction. If you’re curious about how they did the research, read or listen to this interview with two of the authors.Last week, we wrote about how North Korea’s pandemic containment measures prompted Chinese censors to patrol social media to protect Beijing’s cherished “zero-COVID” approach from an unflattering comparison with its neighbor. But Pyongyang’s successes are largely a product of propaganda: this article in the independent outlet NK News talks about how exactly the government has manipulated statistics and used its monopoly over information to demonstrate a “prompt, agile and wise” response to the crisis.

A very meta Mailchimp mix-up

Each week, Coda relies on Mailchimp to distribute our newsletters — until last week, when our account was suspended. The June 10 edition of Infodemic seems to have triggered a warning signal for Mailchimp’s content review algorithm.

We know that Mailchimp prohibits clients from sending content that is “materially false, inaccurate, or misleading in a way that could deceive or confuse others about important events, topics, or circumstances.” Did Mailchimp confuse Infodemic — a newsletter focused on the perils of this type of content — for a disinfo distributor? 

”During our review, we were able to determine that Coda Story was not directly promoting misinformation, but rather referencing the links as news regarding misinformation”, a Mailchimp spokesperson told us via email, “We use a combination of human-run and automated systems to guard against abuse, and we take action against misuse of our platform, including misinformation, when we find it through our own processes or when we receive complaints.”

We’re back in action now, and more certain than ever that algorithms really aren’t as smart as human beings.

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