Earlier this month, a story began making its way around the internet: A 15-year-old boy in Colorado had reportedly died after receiving a coronavirus vaccine.
It appeared in the Twitter feeds of prominent vaccine critics, where it generated thousands of likes and retweets. It showed up on Facebook, and in both Spanish and English on websites that traffic in coronavirus misinformation. It eventually made its way into a local television news story.
Nevermind that the report had not been verified. Or that it came from a federal database where literally anyone can report anything, a database containing a bold-face warning that the report “does not mean that health care personnel or the vaccine caused or contributed to the adverse event.”
Nevermind that, at the time, 15-year-olds weren’t eligible to receive the vaccine in Colorado. Or that clinical trial data would later show the vaccine to be overwhelmingly safe and effective for adolescents. Or that the news station intended its story as an attempt to dispel rumors, not to perpetuate them.
A germ of misleading information about the vaccines had been unleashed into the wild. And, at an office along the Hudson River in upstate New York, a counterterrorism expert and West Point grad working with Colorado health authorities began tracking it.
By week’s end, the report had failed to gain significant traction in Colorado. So the expert — Clint Watts, the founder of a company called Miburo Solutions — gave Colorado officials a recommendation on what to do: Nothing.
“Given the story’s lack of spread at the time of this writing, additional messaging about the incident is not recommended at this time, especially before facts surrounding the report are confirmed by CDC,” Watts wrote in his weekly update to the state.
This is public health in 2021 — it takes an army, and every army needs an intelligence officer.
“The idea is: Can we spot very quickly vaccine conspiracies which are affecting the uptake of the vaccine and distribution of it?” Watts said during a recent interview.
The information battle
Colorado has been working with Watts and his team of 20 at Miburo for a couple months now, using information the team gathers to help shape messages to the public about the safety and efficacy of the coronavirus vaccines.
Messaging campaigns are nothing new in public health. The state has also hired a marketing firm to create a more traditional public relations campaign aimed at persuading Coloradans to get vaccinated. Miburo is a subcontractor to that work, being paid $31,900 for an initial 3-month contract that the state expects to extend soon. Colorado is the only state Miburo is working with.
But, in some ways, this is unique in the history of state public health efforts. It’s less information dissemination and more information warfare.
Misinformation about coronavirus vaccines is rampant online, actively harming governments’ efforts to end the pandemic.
A February poll commissioned by the state asked people who were either on the fence about the vaccine or opposed to receiving it what information they had seen that made them less likely to want to get vaccinated. Of the group, 45% said they had heard the vaccines were unsafe; 12% said they had heard the vaccines have caused deaths; and 8% said they had heard the vaccines contain microchips or were being used to control the population.
(The vaccines, though they have side effects that can be unpleasant, are overwhelmingly safe, and there is a robust monitoring system to look for dangerous side effects. They do not contain microchips, and videos that purport to show magnets sticking to people’s arms at their injection sites are fake.)
Fighting on the information battlefield is Watts’ turf. After graduating from West Point, he served in the U.S. Army as an infantry officer. Later came stints back at West Point at the Combating Terrorism Center and in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
He’s tracked Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. He’s examined Russian disinformation. That’s him in 2019 testifying before a U.S. House committee on “deepfake” videos.
As a consulting firm helping clients respond to disinformation, Miburo has long tracked conspiracies and disinformation across the globe — its team members speak 10 different languages between them. It was active in monitoring foreign propaganda during the presidential election.
But, late last year, the team began to notice a convergence online. All the focus turned to the coronavirus vaccines.
“We knew,” Watts said, “it was the conspiracy space that would endure for the entire year.”
“Falsehoods move much faster than the truth”
The conspiracy theories and misinformation that Watts and his team track comes from local sources or around the globe.
There’s geopolitics at work, as rumors that appear in Coloradans’ Facebook feeds might originate in Russian or Iranian attempts to weaken the United States or jockey for international influence. There’s commerce — some people promoting anti-vaccination conspiracies use those rumors to sell their own products. There’s domestic politics and extremism; there’s religious belief.
A typical weekly report from Miburo to the state contains a rundown of popular vaccine misinformation posts circulating on social media and on general themes that seem to be prominent — like the idea that the vaccines can cause vaccinated people to “shed” particles that can harm others, which is not true.
The reports also highlight Colorado-specific stories that are gaining traction locally or nationally, along with suggestions about how to respond to them. And the reports provide updates on local anti-vaccination activity, such as the screening of an anti-vax film earlier this month in Parker that drew prominent activists.
Rachel Chernaskey, a director at Miburo who oversees the Colorado work, said much of what circulates in Colorado is the same as what is circulating nationally.
“A lot of it is stories that are legitimate news stories that are amplified by communities that are trying to spread anti-vaccine content,” Chernaskey said.
Most of the misinformation in English comes from domestic groups, she said. Information in Spanish is more likely to originate from foreign sources, like the Russian state-controlled news outlet Russia Today, which she said will often try to highlight problems in the United States’ vaccination efforts in contrast to Russia’s diplomatic efforts to distribute vaccines around the world.
Sometimes, as with the story about the 15-year-old boy, stories in Colorado will draw national attention. It happened after the mass-vaccination site at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City was temporarily closed when several recipients of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine began feeling dizzy.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigated and three weeks later determined that the symptoms were most likely caused by anxiety, not by the vaccine. But, by then, the story had already spread across the country, being used as an example of why people should not get vaccinated.
“Falsehoods move much faster than truth,” Watts said. “Verifying any of these incidents as actually having anything to do with the COVID-19 vaccine takes much longer than the speed and volume at which you’ll see conspiracy theorists level that sort of information.”
Turning information into action
On Thursday, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis sat down at his regular press briefing flanked by three people in white coats — a fact that he was eager to point out.
“We have three great doctors here today,” he said.
This is how Colorado is playing offense in the information battle. The same February poll in which the state asked people why they were hesitant to receive the vaccine also asked people whom they trust most to deliver reliable information about the vaccines.
The answer? Doctors.
Among respondents, 91% said they trust doctors a little or a lot. (If you are unsure about the vaccines, yourself, chances are nothing you’ve read here will change your mind; the same poll found only 49% of people trust the news media a little or a lot, the second-lowest among the options, just ahead of social media.)
So, after Miburo identified growing chatter online promoting the false belief that COVID-19 vaccines can harm fertility, CDPHE brought an OB/GYN doctor into one of its press briefings to rebut the claim and provide the facts.
Polis, on Thursday, played panel moderator and asked the three doctors at his briefing — which streamed live on Facebook — questions about how the vaccines were tested and determined safe.
“No question is too small or too large to get answered,” said Polis, who referred to the doctors as straight shooters. “And we don’t want a lack of information or inaccurate information to stand in the way of you getting this life-saving vaccine that could protect your life and the lives of your loved ones.”
One of the doctors, Dr. Suchitra Rao, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, was exactly the kind of expert that Watts has been urging governments to highlight. With vaccinations now opening to adolescents, he believes that the next front in the information war will be over kids.
When it was her turn, Rao glanced at her notes and spoke clearly.
“It’s understandable that families are going to be asking a lot of questions around the vaccine and what to do for their families,” she said. “ … Unfortunately, misinformation and myths can spread more easily than the facts. So I recommend that families turn to their trusted sources of information — pediatricians, as well as other primary care providers, who know a lot about how vaccines work and vaccine safety.”
And Polis nodded in agreement.