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Anti-vaxxers are adopting new tactics

In May, Instagram announced that it would block hashtags that promote “verifiably false” information about vaccines. The move came after similar efforts from other social media platforms to restrict vaccine misinformation.

But anti-vaxxers have developed some clever workarounds to Instagram’s restrictions.

Coda Story reported Dec. 6 that anti-vaxxers have started using coded hashtags to continue promoting the false belief that vaccines are dangerous. Prior to Instagram’s announcement, anti-vaccine users promoted posts with hashtags like #vaccineskill, whereas now, users are using abstruse hashtags like #learntherisk and #justasking.

“Tactics like spelling vaccines with a cedilla (vaççines) or using a bracket (va((ines) to try to avoid detection by Instagram also proliferate on the platform,” Coda Story wrote. 

Another way anti-vaxxers have tried to dupe Instagram’s controls is to co-opt the language used primarily by abortion rights advocates, such as #righttochoose and #mybodymychoice. And it’s not just online.

NBC News reported Dec. 6 that anti-vaccine organizers have been harassing legislators and doctors in person. Similar to how anti-abortion protesters will stake out women’s health clinics to heckle patients, some anti-vaxxers have started to confront parents outside of doctors’ offices.

“Some of the protesters sat with signs, while others stuck anti-vaccine propaganda under car windshield wipers in the parking lot,” NBC wrote about one demonstration on Long Island, New York, in October. “Several approached parents entering the building with their infants, asking, ‘Are you vaccinating your baby?’”

The backdrop for those demonstrations, which used to be almost entirely online, is a global outbreak of measles. In Samoa, the preventable illness has led to more than 65 deaths — and the reason why has to do with vaccine skepticism there.

“Whereas flawed health-care systems have been associated with surges in measles cases in some countries, the key reason for Samoa’s woes appear rooted in recent anti-vaccine activism, which pushed vaccination rates to dangerously low levels,” The Washington Post reported Dec. 6.

To try to abate the health crisis, Samoa made the measles vaccine mandatory and arrested anti-vaccine campaigners. In response, anti-vaxxers started leaving one-star reviews for the country’s government on Facebook.

If these events tell us anything, it’s that anti-vaxxers are among the most coordinated — and dangerous — misinformers on the internet. And as they continue to refine their coordination tactics and take them offline, they have real potential to affect ongoing public health crises.

. . . technology

  • Worried about post-trauma disorders, fact-checkers in India set guidelines for self-care. Boom’s fact-checking team, for example, now follows six rules to keep everyone mentally safe.  
    • Those interested in learning how to deal with photos and videos featuring lynchings, child abuse and other crimes should visit the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma’s website, which offers relevant tips and many articles about handling traumatic imagery.   
  • CrowdTangle has launched a new and improved search for fact-checkers. The tool will make it easier to search for posts about a specific subject across Facebook, Instagram and Reddit.

. . .  politics

  • The national security law website Lawfare looked at how the impeachment investigation report from U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) handled false claims and conspiracy theories. The report’s strategy, the authors said: “Deny it the attention it needs to grow.”
    • “The Schiff report shows remarkable discipline in marrying the shorthand used to describe conspiracies with modifiers that underscore their untruthfulness,” they wrote.
  • In the runup to Britain’s general election today, much false content has come from the parties and candidates themselves, as opposed to foreign meddling, The New York Times reported

. . .  the future of news

  • An updated version of IFCN’s 2016 Code of Principles has been approved by an overwhelming majority of its verified signatories and will be introduced worldwide in March 2020. Among other changes, applicants will be required to have published an average of at least one fact check a week for at least six months in most countries, and 12 weeks in countries where the IFCN already has five or more signatories, to be eligible to apply. 
    • The updated code will also require those parent media companies that want their fact-checking units to be signatories to also follow an honest and open corrections policy, said IFCN’s senior adviser, Peter Cunliffe-Jones.
  • Journalists today operate in an environment of misinformation and polarization, while also being mistrusted and maligned by politicians who seek to discredit their work. API has published a new report synthesizing some experts’ strategies to deal with these challenges.

It’s hard to predict what would happen if a complex piece of legislation were to become law. In the United States, looking at a bill’s potential effects is the job of a nonpartisan legislative scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office. 

But once CBO “scores” a bill, its numbers are often cherry-picked and sometimes taken out of context by people seeking to advocate a particular outcome. That’s what happened when PhRMA, the lobbying group for the pharmaceutical industry, created an ad asserting that a drug pricing plan from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) would “siphon” $1 trillion from biopharmaceutical innovation over 10 years.

In a fact-check delivered this week, (Poynter-owned) PolitiFact and Kaiser Health News painstakingly deconstructed the ad and its numbers, ultimately concluding that it was “mostly false.” 

What we liked: The fact check not only dissected the numbers, but also detailed other factors at work. For example, noted writer Shefali Luthra, a lot of drug research and development is actually done by the government as opposed to the drugmakers. The fact check is also evidence that the PolitiFact-KHN partnership, which began this year, is bearing fruit in the health care policy space. 

  1. The New York Times’ Malachy Browne shared some of his verification tools with the Global Investigative Journalism Network.
  2. People given accurate statistics on a controversial issue will misremember those numbers to fit commonly held beliefs, according to a new study by researchers at Ohio State University.
  3. If you missed Columbia Journalism Review’s recent conference on covering disinformation in 2020, the video is available here, and CJR did a roundup.
  4. On Facebook, misinformation is still targeting Hillary Clinton and her family’s charitable foundation.
  5. Business Insider found a whole lot of anti-vaxxer magazine articles in the checkout line at Whole Foods.
  6. A researcher at George Mason University is developing a “Cranky Uncle” app to help people identify and contend with science denial techniques, according to The Guardian.
  7. Facebook ads are promoting misinformation about HIV and drugs that are used to prevent it, The Washington Post reported.
  8. Full Fact has partnered with Ndemic Creations to create a misinformation version of the game Plague Inc.
  9. The Atlantic published a deep dive on the roots of the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 election.
  10. A former InfoWars employee wrote a first-hand account of what it was like to work with notorious conspiracist Alex Jones.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. And if this email was forwarded to you, you can subscribe here

Daniel, Susan and Cristina

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Daniel Funke covers fact-checking and misinformation for Poynter's International Fact-Checking Network. He previously reported for Poynter as a Google News Lab fellow and has worked…
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