opinion

"A COVID-19 conspiracy theorist sent me links to all of his 'sources.' So I looked into them."

Usually when a COVID-19 conspiracy theorist slides into my email, it's abusive. 

I am sworn at and told to 'do my research,' and chastised for continuing to share informative articles and news stories about the current state of COVID-19 in our country. 

I, like millions of other law-abiding citizens, have watched on horrified as thousands of Australians pour onto the streets in protest, or share misinformation on social media platforms followed by eye-watering amounts of people.

While they are in the minority, their voices are loud, and I have found myself furiously mulling over two questions of late: Where are they getting their information? How have they got this so wrong? 

Watch: How to talk to anti-vaxxers. Post continues after video.


Video via Mamamia.

So when I opened my inbox this week to a polite email from a conspiracy theorist offering me links to his research I thought, fantastic! Convince me.

I proceeded to watch every single thing he sent over. 

Here's what I learnt. 

There's truth mixed into the lies.

This is why misinformation is such a stubborn beast. It so hard to pull apart because it's a clusterf*** trying to separate the lies from the nuggets of truth. It requires a lot of "well, yes that's true. But that's not."

I want to focus on one link I was sent in particular, a video (from America) claiming to show children collapsing and dying from the vaccine in Australia. 

On August 18 an online program (that won't be named here), shared a report that claimed: “2 Kids DEAD After 24,000 Children Herded Into Stadium for JAB!"

In the video, NSW Health branding is visible on attendants’ clothing as they tend to someone on the ground. It's blurry and the nurses quickly put up a shield to protect the person's privacy while telling the person filming to stop recording. 

This video has been doing the rounds on social media. It's a conspiracy theory. Image: YouTube.

As the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has told AAP FactCheck they have "not received any reports of death occurring after vaccination in an individual aged 18 years or under."

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But what about the people on the ground?? And the uniforms??

Well, as US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will tell you, fainting after vaccination is a known side-effect likely triggered by pain or anxiety. 

In fact, Mamamia's own Lucy Neville fainted after her COVID-19 jab. Not because of the vaccine - she's just prone to fainting. 

"When I'm at the doctor's office, I always lay down and listen to music through headphones. I have an autoimmune disease so I have to get lots of needles and blood tests, and that's been really helpful. So for my second vaxx, they advised me to let the nurse know on arrival that I am prone to fainting, and they took me over to a recliner in the recovery area and did my vaccine there! No fainting. No discomfort. And they also assured me that fainting is more common than you might think," she told me.

This story is the perfect example of taking one truthful fact and creating an entire false narrative around it. 

We saw the same thing happen with Thomas Van Dijk, a Year 12 pupil at St Pius X College in Sydney, who died after suffering a cardiac arrest while swimming with his family. 

Dozens of social media users proceeded to mindlessly, insensitively parrot a rumour that Thomas had died after receiving a COVID-19 injection.

Thomas, as confirmed by his grieving parents and principal, never received a vaccination. Conspiracy theorists hijacked his death to feed their narrative. 

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When you step back even further, it gets even trickier. Because there have been some Australians who have died from vaccine complications, the youngest of whom was 34. However, many more people have died from COVID, and the risk of the virus far outweighs the risk of the vaccine. But once again, conspiracy theories have a truth to cling to that they build their narrative around. 

Their claims against the government are the hardest to unfurl. Because there's a lot our government has subjectively done wrong. They do have questionable policies in place when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace. They aren't doing enough for climate change despite warnings from experts and they have stuffed up some of the settings when it comes to lockdowns and restrictions as they try to balance medical advice with economic ramifications. 

However. You can hold the government to account and prove them wrong on certain topics and measures, and believe in other measures being put in place by the same group of people. The reason most of us are following the rules when it comes to lockdowns and restrictions and vaccines is not because of Scott Morrison or our local politician. It's because we're listening to the scientists and epidemiologists and doctors who are advising said politicians. 

Here, listen to an expert. Professor Mary Louise McLaws had a big long chat with Mia Freedman on No Filter. Post continues after video.


Their 'sources' look legit at first glance. 

One source I was sent touted itself as a 'monthly magazine on health and medicine' and it looked like an actual news website. It's got the right branding, it's got a flashing ad at the top which makes it looks like it has been commercialised, (the ad is for the website itself, however), and the landing page has all the right headings and add-ons. 

The headlines of the articles are along the vein of, 'viruses aren't the cause of any disease' and 'why the magnetism in vaccines is real.' Once again, that's a headline that's constructed to read like any normal news headline. At Mamamia, we've written articles like 'Is Delta dangerous for children? Here's what we know.' It's that same inquisitive title that promises to explain something to you. 

But once you click into these articles they say things like "it's not a hoax, but something that is real and verified. Officially it has no explanation, so vaccinologists and so called 'verifiers' have chosen to deny the fact itself." 

They are telling their reader something is fake or a 'hoax' but they don't have an explanation or proof as to why. 

Another website I clicked on which warned me that "it was never about my health" was full of long videos featuring a man telling me that I should "question everything" in this "inverted reality." When I tried to search for the qualifications of the sole man behind the website, I could only find his first name. He did link me to plenty more 'sources' however that claimed to provide a "comprehensive investigation into the alleged COVID-19 pandemic." 

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I was taken to a 'research paper' that had things like a table of contents and an introduction and conclusion that made it look like a proper paper. But then I read who it was researched by.

"I am neither a legal nor a health expert, but as a citizen of good conscience and one who has a degree in Computer Science and someone who currently works in education, has the ability to carry out research and understand the majority of what I read, I feel duty-bound to present this evidence to you."

Look. I have a degree in Journalism, and I also have the ability to carry out research. However, you'll notice I never write anything about science or medicine that doesn't quote a professional. Only scientists and doctors have the expertise to comment on such topics, and no, Computer Science doesn't count.

He goes on to claim that "there are many people like myself who consider that government officials and personnel have broken the law." He sites two independently established 'Judicial Review' challenges that are currently in progress that have "barely been publicised" because "this fact alone illustrates that the mainstream media primarily report what fits with the required narrative."

One of the said judicial reviews was pursued by Simon Dolan, who is a British businessman who made his fortune in accountancy. Said review was thrown out of court. 

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Now I am sure that this man is bloody great at accountancy, but he doesn't have much sway when it comes to public health measures and the complex decisions government makes based off health advice. The media did in fact report on him, but his case was thrown out. What more was there to say?

Another website I was led to promised me more reliable expertise. 

German-American lawyer Dr Reiner Fuellmich was the first person quoted. This is where it all gets super muddy, because Mr Fuellmich does have relevant qualifications as a lawyer. However his facts have been debunked time and time again (click here for a full debunking), and just because he has a law degree doesn't mean he is qualified to comment on medicine and science. Yet he delivers statements in a matter-of-fact way, without a shred of supporting evidence. He'll say things like, "let’s take a look at the current actual situation regarding the virus’s danger, the complete uselessness of PCR tests for the detection of infections, and the lockdowns based on non-existent infections."

As Dr Robert Turner explains, "His use of the word 'actual' indicates your perception of reality has been flawed and he is about to set you straight. PCR testing is trashed without a shred of supporting evidence and next, he suggests there aren’t any infections....These statements on their own don’t look dramatic and we are therefore inclined not to seek validation for them, but they begin to paint a picture in the reader’s mind and thus lend credibility to the rest of the narrative. The author uses this tactic remorselessly throughout, building on it as he progresses. Small lies and falsehoods, interspersed with facts to lend credence."

This is why it's tricky, because not all experts are created equal. Just like not all journalists, painters, plumbers, politicians and accountants are created equal. There are bad eggs in every industry who will use their title to exploit a situation. 

Once they fall down the hole, there's no getting out. 

I think this is actually the scariest finding. I knew that the social media algorithm is fed by what you click on, but experiencing it in real-time this week has been really eye-opening.

Because I have watched a bunch of conspiracy theorist videos and read a heap of articles, my Instagram, TikTok and Facebook now thinks I want to see....more. 

It's subtle too, because I am 'new' to the world. So I will have five videos about dancing and comedy and then one will slip in about someone refusing to wear a mask or someone ranting about 'their body their choice.' Then it's gone again, buried by another ten twerking videos. 

Before this week, the COVID-19 content I was fed on my socials was nurses with pleas to stay home, scientists debunking information and political comedy. I was in a safe little bubble of like-minded people. 

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I can see why it would be so easy to slip into this world, and that's terrifying. It's why your brother, parent, and best friend have already fallen in. It's not them - it's their social media. And while the platforms we use have started to crack down on misinformation by removing videos and posting banners over the top of them telling you they're false, there's plenty more falling through the cracks. Once someone's in too deep, they then get off mainstream platforms altogether and find themselves on un-verified websites and one-man-band blogs or YouTube accounts. 

It's a wild world of misinformation out there, but having dug deep into it myself here's my advice: check the source of the content you're consuming and remember that experts train for years in their field for a reason. Seek them out, listen to them, tell them your fears and have them help you debunk them. 

Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone’s opinion is of equal value when it comes to COVID-19. 

For more from Gemma Bath, keep up to date with her articles here, or follow her on Instagram.

Read more:

How to have a conversation with someone who is vaccine hesitant.

"I'm a doctor, and here are the 6 questions I get asked most about the COVID vaccine - answered."

"It’s not really about you”: I’m a nurse on the frontline. And I just want you to know this".

Feature image: Mamamia.