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Coronavirus conspiracies are kids’ stuff now

The Infodemic is a weekly newsletter, tracking how disinformation surrounding the coronavirus crisis is reshaping our world. Also in this edition: Jacinda Ardern’s press conference heckler and Hong Kong’s fake contact tracing app

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The United States’ decision to roll out Covid-19 vaccines for children as young as five has sent parents, doctors and teachers into a frenzy of either attacking or defending the move. It also unleashed a new wave of disinformation that targets not only grown ups but, increasingly, kids themselves. 

Take this video, which has generated tens of thousands of views on Twitter over the past few days. Its origins are relatively obscure and have nothing to do with the pandemic. In 2017, a Brazilian company decided to experiment with virtual reality to make children less scared of routine injections. 

The concept is simple: young participants put on VR glasses and watch a cartoon about a rather cute (in my view) creature with a golden helmet that inserts an object into the viewer’s arm and destroys a monster. While watching, the child receives an injection without even noticing. 

As more and more countries rolled out vaccinations for children, and the FDA approved the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for five-year-olds, the clip suddenly resurfaced on social media. 

“One of the most devilish things I’ve seen,” read one post underneath the video. It didn’t take long for others to join in, accusing the creators of everything from zombifying kids to pedophilia. 

Luiz Evandro, one of the creators of the virtual reality project, is shocked by the way it has been portrayed. “It just baffles me that something that was done to ease the suffering of children can be so misinterpreted,” he told me.

Earlier this year Chris Phillips, a 39-year old father of three from Utah, noticed that local school officials were making decisions about health measures “based on misinformation rather than expert opinions.” In August, Phillips co-founded the Concerned Coalition, a grassroots organization that seeks to protect children by pressuring local authorities to introduce adequate health measures in schools based on recommendations from doctors. 

“Parents are worn down. Health disinformation, including vaccine disinformation, has never been so prevalent. It has made our communities and our schools less safe,” he told me. 

More than 4,000 other parents, who joined the group, share Phillips’ worries. And it’s not just the US, either. According to a 2020 study by Internet Matters — a group that advocates for child safety online — 36% of parents in the United Kingdom cited their children seeing fake information about the coronavirus as a primary concern.

Schools all over the United Kingdom, where children over 12 are now eligible for Covid-19 vaccination, have been receiving hoax letters, supposedly sent by the National Health Service, with a list of claims of risks to children posed by coronavirus shots. 

The official-looking document, which bears the NHS logo, claims that children may be more likely to die from vaccination than from Covid-19 and gives a detailed rundown of alleged adverse reactions, including blindness, anaphylaxis and “possible long-term effects,” such as infertility. None of it is based on science. 

Vaccine-related conspiracy theories, false information and misleading communications are not only being targeted at parents and teachers but, increasingly, at children themselves. Studies show that young people are not only least capable of identifying misinformation, but also highly likely to share it, making them the perfect vectors.

A recent investigation by NewsGuard showed how children are bombarded with vaccine-related disinformation on TikTok within minutes after signing up — and in at least four languages. 

NewsGuard gathered a small group of children and recorded their screens while they spent 45 minutes browsing the app. Among dancing and lip-syncing clips, kids as young as nine come across content that describes vaccines as deadly and states that the coronavirus crisis  is a genocidal conspiracy. 

TikTok told the NewsGuard team that the platform “works diligently” to ensure the safety and well-being of its users, but NewsGuard found that even the basic age restrictions (the app prohibits under-13s from using it) are easily circumvented.

Phillips says that his children spend little time on social media but, even so, false claims manage to seep through to them. 

“Every piece of disinformation or misinformation feels like it has a different audience. It’s as if each piece speaks to a different individual and their unique concerns or fears,” he said.

GLOBAL ROUND UP

This week’s infodemic award goes to the man who berated Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for “lying to the public of New Zealand.” He turned up at a press conference, held by Ardern, and kept interrupting her as she tried to answer a question about vaccinations. He asked Ardern again and again why she was “still pushing” vaccines, until she announced she was shutting down the meeting. The man was later identified as Shane Chafin, a U,S. citizen and “chief medical correspondent” of Counterspin Media, a new conspiracy show that runs on Steve Bannon’s GVT Media.

Hong Kong police are hunting the developers of a fake Covid-19 contact tracing app. It’s now compulsory to use the official app, LeaveHomeSafe, to visit government premises, libraries, markets and leisure centres in Hong Kong. Inevitably, fears have grown that it will be used to track and surveil residents. Enter the almost identical fake app, “BackHomeSafe,” which generates a fake QR code for people to show when entering government buildings. Four people were arrested on Monday for allegedly using it. In response to privacy concerns, officials have promised that the real app won’t upload data to a central server, but refuses to make its source code public.

In zero-Covid China this week, children at a Beijing primary school were held for hours after one staff member tested positive. Some pupils were then sent to government quarantine centers for two weeks. Footage on Weibo and Twitter shows the kids, dressed in hazmat suits, getting on to coaches as their parents look on. The videos have been seized upon by anti-China social media campaigners, who are calling for the draconian pandemic measures to end and are holding up the footage as evidence that the government has gone too far in trying to control the Delta variant. Elsewhere in the world, children are being targeted by conspiracy theorists. Read on to find out more. 

Alexandra Tyan and Isobel Cockerell contributed to this week’s Infodemic.Sign up here to get the next edition of this newsletter, straight to your inbox.

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