March 2, 2021

As world leaders and everyday citizens roll up their sleeves to get vaccinated against COVID-19, purveyors of falsehoods have turned to a new tactic — claiming those vaccinations were a hoax. Vice President Kamala Harris, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa have all been the subject of false claims that their televised vaccinations were “staged.”

Out of the 688 fact checks added to the CoronaVirusFacts Alliance database in the first two months of 2021, 234 beat back false claims intended to sew doubt about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines. The database is the product of the largest fact-checking collaboration project in history, bringing together 99 fact-checking organizations from more than 70 countries to compile fact checks in more than 40 languages. One of the more common falsehoods involved gaslighting the public by claiming highly publicized vaccinations like those of Harris, Morrison and Ramaphosa were all staged.

Other common themes included claims vaccines are killing people (they aren’t), and falsehoods claiming vaccines will alter/ impact a person’s biology or DNA (it won’t).

Claims that vaccines were killing people centered on a hoax out of Norway where some falsely claimed the Norwegian government was blaming the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine for the deaths of 23 vaccinated seniors. At least six fact-checking organizations in Europe and Asia confirmed that while the Norwegian government was investigating the deaths of 13 seniors, it had never blamed the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine. Of the at least 36 fact-checks blaming COVID-19 vaccines for increased deaths, 11 focused on this Norway hoax.

Claims that the COVID-19 vaccines will somehow alter the recipient’s biology ran the gamut from claims Australians had contracted HIV (debunked here by Estadão Verifica and Agence France Presse) to claims it would lead to increased sterility in men (debunked here by Agência Lupa).

The Australia/HIV claim capitalized on a real news story about a failed vaccine candidate shut down in early production. The University of Queensland’s vaccine candidate produced HIV antibodies in some early trial participants, leading them to falsely test positive for the disease. Researchers said the problem would take a year to fix, and decided to abandon the project.

Both Estadão Verifica and AFP debunked claims that failed to mention the false positive tests, and instead used snippets of the story to falsely prop up a larger narrative that COVID-19 vaccines are dangerous.

Falsehoods about masks ranged from them not being very effective at best to being actively harmful at worst. Previously debunked hoaxes about masks leading to hypoxia made a brief appearance, but there were also new claims that falsely connected mask-wearing to lung cancer.

ScienceFeedback, Maldita.es and Demagog all debunked variations on this claim that used research on oral bacteria to falsely assert that long-term mask-wearing causes cancer. The fact-checkers pointed out this research did not involve mask-wearing at all, and that the claim made large logical leaps to promote its false conclusion.

Despite numerous debunkings, fact checks about false cures continued to feature prominently in the database. Hydroxychloroquine and herbal remedies made up a quarter of the 95 fact-checks about cures. Falsehoods about the anti-malaria drug were most prominent in Brazil, where elements of the government including President Jair Bolsonaro continue to promote hydroxychloroquine as a miracle cure for COVID-19.

Agência Lupa and Aos Fatos, both debunked variations of a claim that hydroxychloroquine skeptics had retracted their criticism of the drug. Agência Lupa fact-checked a Facebook post falsely claiming the U.S. government was recommending hydroxychloroquine (it’s not). Aos Fatos debunked a claim that the retraction of a Lancet article that questioned the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine proves the drug’s effectiveness. The study was retracted for technical issues with its data.

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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