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Anti-vaccination groups target local media after social media crackdowns

From California to Maine, local news stations have been giving anti-vaccination activists a platform to spread misinformation.
Image: A nurse prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Manning, S.C., on Dec. 17, 2020.
A nurse prepares a Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Manning, S.C., on Dec. 17, 2020.Micah Green / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Friday night’s newscast on WFXG-TV in Augusta, Georgia, a Fox affiliate, featured some exciting news: The Charlie Norwood VA Medical Center in the city would be among the first Veterans Affairs locations to receive initial doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine. Shots would be in arms this week.

But then, the story quickly pivoted to a small group of “concerned mothers” holding large black and red signs outside the hospital with messages familiar to people who have followed the anti-vaccination movement and its dangerously misleading position.

One young girl held up a sign with a message long since discredited by medical experts: "Vaccines can cause injury and death." A woman interviewed for the segment falsely claimed the vaccine’s ingredients were unknown and that its makers “skipped over” steps in its trial. The station's website also featured the segment, adding a directive to readers to find out more about the “known and unknown risks of the vaccine,” and a single link that took users to an error page.

The station had provided the kind of platform that public health professionals and misinformation experts dread.

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“This is the problem of information laundering,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University, who studies media manipulation. “If you make a harmful position sound reasonable, then more people who would otherwise not be inclined to believe it, might be willing to look at it as an issue with two sides.”

WFXG’s news director, David Williams, declined to comment.

With online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube cracking down on misinformation around Covid-19 vaccines, some anti-vaccination activists are pivoting to sparsely-attended real-world events and looking to local news outlets to amplify their message and give them a chance to raise money through donations. That tactic, known to experts as information laundering, appears to be gaining some traction.

From California to Maine, local news stations that had largely stopped covering childhood immunization opponents have been highlighting the anti-vaccination movement’s response to Covid-19 restrictions and solutions by covering their protests and giving activists a microphone to spread misinformation.

Experts have warned that credulous coverage of fringe and misleading anti-vaccine misinformation — coverage that doesn’t explicitly state that the information is false — can cause real-world harm, including a hesitancy among some people to get vaccinated that threatens to undermine the pandemic response. Local television news is a particularly important source of information about the pandemic, as it’s consistently the most popular source Americans turn to for news, according to the Pew Research Center.

Local media coverage is all part of the plan, said Joshua Coleman, a California anti-vaccine activist who has spent the last couple of years organizing and documenting anti-vaccine events. Coleman confirmed what social media data suggests — that the pandemic has led to a growth in anti-vaccine communities, and said that anti-lockdown protests offered a way to introduce the cause to a new audience. But he’s also felt the sting from efforts by online platforms to reduce the spread of misinformation about vaccines.

Being able to post media coverage of his events offers a workaround.

“I get excited when that happens,” Coleman said. “Especially when they show the signs, because if we get some of those messages out, that's what we want.”

NBC News found examples of at least nine local news outlets that have taken the bait.

A coordinated November event in which activists across multiple states blanketed busy overpasses with banners that undermined Covid-19 vaccines, falsely claiming they weren’t “placebo tested,” caught the eye of multiple local news outlets.

In Kennewick, Washington, a woman told the CBS affiliate station KEPR, "We want people to do their own research… you can’t unvaccinate.” The spot ran four times in one day. The online version of the story was removed from KEPR’s website following an inquiry by NBC News. (An affiliate station is a local TV broadcaster that is not owned by one of the national broadcast networks but has a contractual agreement with one of the networks.)

Tom Yazwinski, KEPR's news director, declined to comment.

Similar coverage of a banner event, organized by Montanans for Vaccine Choice in Billings, Montana, was broadcast by at least five local stations in the state.

Few segments featured doctors or public health advocates to counter the anti-vaccination misinformation. Even those that did, like KNSD-TV, a San Diego station owned and operated by NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News, framed the activists at a San Diego event as part of a valid opposition to a vaccine the FDA has determined to be safe and effective. The chyrons at the bottom of the screen read “COVID-19 VACCINE DEBATE” and “San Diegans divided over vaccine.” The segment was also written up on KNSD-TV's website.

Greg Dawson, the news director of KNSD-TV, declined to comment.

All of the outlets described the anti-vaccination activists as advocates for “medical freedom,” or “informed choice,” using similar obfuscating language the movement has adopted in recent years to elude online content moderators and appeal to the mainstream media.

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News organizations should also counterbalance typically newsy stories like a protest with ones that show people supportIng science and vaccines, Phillips suggested.

“Pro-vaccine parents also should have a say in this,” she said. “Instead of local reporters immediately going to the parent who's screaming in opposition.”

Before Covid-19, Coleman said, his events — in which activists in “Star Wars” costumes protested outside Disneyland or picketers stalked scientists around vaccine conferences — garnered little media attention.

“We were getting ignored,” he said. “I thought our event was definitely newsworthy but they didn't. They didn't think so.”

Finally getting traction, Coleman says he plans to organize events in the coming weeks at hospitals and other sites where Covid-19 vaccines are being administered, though he’s not quite sure where those will be yet.

“I guess we'll just see, but it's easy to find out," he said. "The news will make a big deal about it. We'll see where they’re at and we'll head over there.”

CORRECTION (Dec. 17, 2020, 1:09 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated the number of times a news segment about anti-vaccination activists aired in one day on KEPR in Kennewick, Washington. It was four times, not three.

Polly DeFrank contributed.