Health

Misinformation from the U.S. is the next virus—and it’s spreading fast

It’s deadly, malicious and there’s no vaccine. The infodemic is here. But it's not unstoppable.

On Sept. 22, Shanon Sheppard of Halifax posted a video on Facebook to share terrible news with the world.

Sheppard, who comes across like a normal, worried mom in the video, says she hopes she can keep from crying. After she composes herself, she reveals the disturbing news she just learned from her daughter at school.

“One of her friends is now in critical care in hospital here in Halifax because her heart stopped right after she had a vaccine,” Sheppard says. “She’s not well right now. She can’t breathe. Her heart keeps stopping. She’s 13 years old—13 years old, and her heart stopped!”

Sheppard denounces Nova Scotia Premier Tim Houston and chief medical officer Dr. Robert Strang for forcing a 13-year-old girl to be injected with a dangerous vaccine.

When Mark Friesen saw the video the next day, in Saskatoon, he became enraged. Fresh from a fourth-place finish as a People’s Party of Canada (PPC) candidate in the federal election, he tweeted a link to Sheppard’s video along with his own video, filmed from behind the wheel of his truck.

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“There are kids dropping like flies all over the world!” said Friesen, struggling to control his temper. “There are adults dropping like flies all over the world from this vaccine that you’ve now mandated! And the rest of you people, you just accept it because the government says so, because the f–king media says so, while we watch our kids die!”

Hundreds of other people shared Sheppard’s video on Twitter. It went viral, getting more than 100,000 views on Facebook alone, before the platform took it down.

It wasn’t true, of course. Serious vaccine-related illnesses are rare, and carefully reported by doctors. Strang told CBC Halifax that officials had determined that there was no freshly vaccinated 13-year-old girl in hospital and that “some other information would lead us to believe that this is a false story.”

This is a scene from the infodemic, where made-up stories go viral, catching public health officials flat-footed and convincing people not to take the vaccines that are the best hope for protecting them and ending the pandemic.

Sheppard, whose personal website describes her as a tarot-card reader, psychic and jewellery designer, no longer has a social media presence, but Friesen, a misinformation superspreader, didn’t stop.

Friesen, who owns a Saskatoon tree-pruning business, calls himself the “Grizzly Patriot.” He is a family man with a folksy Prairie manner and a thick beard—he comes across like a conspiratorial Red Green, but instead of sharing cabin-improvement tips, he’s got fake news about the “globalist” threat to your freedom. He is an energetic activist, giving talks, organizing rallies and holding protests outside hospitals. He has run twice for the PPC and even took the province to court, where he lost, unsuccessfully challenging public health rules.

He won’t get vaccinated, won’t wear a mask. In July, he tweeted: “To all those lovely people that hoped I’d catch ‘Covid’ and die: Um, 14 months of rallies, protests and town hall events, speaking, singing our anthem, hugging, shaking hands without a mask or social distancing, literally gathering with hundreds of thousands.”

This fall, his luck ran out.

Friesen’s social media accounts fell silent at the end of September. At some point in early October, he was hospitalized in Saskatoon, possibly in a facility he had been protesting outside just weeks earlier. He has COVID-19.

On Oct. 22, Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson, an independent evangelical broadcaster, revealed in an online video that Friesen had been airlifted to Toronto’s Mount Sinai Hospital. From his bedside, Sean Taylor, a PPC candidate from B.C. and a fellow anti-vaxxer, told Tyler Thompson that Friesen had been intubated.

“He’s sick,” said Taylor. “He’s in a fight but I’m hopeful.”

***

Friesen was flown to Toronto—at an estimated cost of $20,000—because Saskatchewan’s hospitals were overwhelmed, mostly with unvaccinated COVID patients—many of them, no doubt, victims of the infodemic.

Two days before Tyler Thompson’s broadcast, Dr. Saqib Shahab, Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer—whom Friesen had often attacked—broke down in tears as he discussed the situation. “It is very distressing to see unvaccinated, young, healthy people ending up in the ICU and dying,” he said. “To see young lives lost to a vaccine-preventable disease—how can we accept this?”

As we enter year three of the pandemic, the people in charge of fighting it can be forgiven for crying. The medical establishment has used astonishing new technology to invent, test, manufacture and distribute vaccines that can stop COVID-19, but the disease keeps mutating among the unvaccinated, producing variants with the potential for “immune escape.”

Doctors who should be focused on the 30 mutations in Omicron—the newest, most worrying variant—instead have to waste time countering misinformation sown by a vast army of deluded keyboard warriors who are constantly changing their toxic messages, mutating like the virus.

Anti-vaccine protesters outside a hospital in Houston in June 2021 (Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images)

Anti-vaccine protesters outside a hospital in Houston in June 2021 (Mark Felix/AFP/Getty Images)

While we are fighting the coronavirus, we are also fighting an American virus—misinformation—which is mostly spread through American social media platforms that have dissolved the old bureaucratic borders against the dark side of American political culture. It’s a virus as dangerous as the one that causes COVID-19.

Strang says most of the misinformation he encounters has its roots in the U.S., with much of it going back to Donald Trump, who regularly spread misinformation.

“That set a precedent and allowed that to happen. All the stuff that I see here has very direct routes back to the U.S.”

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A report from the Communications Security Establishment—Canada’s cybersecurity agency—explains why: “Canada’s media ecosystem is closely intertwined with that of the U.S. and other allies, which means that when their citizens are targeted, Canadians become exposed to online influence as a type of collateral damage.”

A recent study by Canadian political science professors found that 71 per cent of Canadians follow more Americans than Canadians on Twitter, for instance. The platforms are “saturating information streams with U.S.-based news,” and “news exposure is associated with more COVID-19 misperceptions after controlling for domestic news exposure and other indicators of political engagement.”

In short, Canadians are getting bad ideas from the United States. “Social media exposure is related to COVID-19 misperceptions in large part because of its capacity to amplify the impact of content coming from the U.S. information environment.”

***

If you dig at all into the sources of the ludicrous theories about COVID-19, you’ll soon find yourself in the fever swamps of the American right.

Some say Bill Gates is implanting microchips in vaccine recipients. Others say COVID is caused by 5G towers. Friesen has tweeted about a “globalist” plot, and has mentioned the Rothschilds, a family that has often been featured in anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. One video Friesen shared asserts that shadowy figures at the World Economic Forum want to reduce the world’s population to 500 million by forcing people to take vaccines that make them infertile.

In an interview with an American podcast, he said he gets a lot of his information from a writer with the John Birch Society, which has been pushing racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories since the days of Dwight Eisenhower, who they allege was a secret Communist.

Elaborate and nonsensical conspiracy theories like these, often tinged with anti-Semitism, have a long history in the United States. In 1964, in Harper’s magazine, American historian Richard Hofstadter laid out the long, dismal history in an article called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” written in reaction to the presidential candidacy of Republican Barry Goldwater.

READ: Misinformation is an infection that politicians have left to fester

Hofstadter found a malignant thread—conspiratorial anti-establishment movements alleging nefarious plots, always featuring a powerful villain who “makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced.”

The specific enemy changes—Masons, Catholics, Communists, Blacks and Jews have all played the role—but the story stays the same. The enemy is “a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving.”

The people who recognize the plot, on the other hand, are heroes.

“As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader,” Hofstadter wrote.

If you watch the videos of the conspiracy theorists, which I don’t recommend, you’ll see that they are bound together by the cause, sharing the excitement and hardship of the struggle—an escape, perhaps, from a humdrum life spent reading tarot cards or pruning trees.

Amarnath Amarasingam, an assistant professor at Queen’s University, sees that psychological dynamic at play among those radicalized by Islamism or white nationalism, not just anti-vaxxers.

“They’ve developed this kind of embattled identity, this small vanguard of people who are going to wake up the sleeping masses to the true reality of their lives [and tell them] that the wool has been pulled over their eyes and they are being used for sinister ends.”

The paranoid style, traditionally on the margins of American political life, has come into the mainstream in the Trump era. Although Donald Trump was vaccinated, and spoke half-heartedly in favour of vaccination when he came under pressure for mishandling the pandemic, he pivoted to misinformation as a way to deflect accountability.

Trump’s supporters, like all of us, are inclined to conformity bias, which leads individuals to form opinions based on what their group thinks, in what some researchers call tribal epistemology. In this case, it has fatal consequences. There are three times as many COVID deaths in Trump-supporting counties, where vaccination rates are low, as there are in Democratic counties. In Canada, the areas most heavily influenced by Trump-style politics are also the areas with the highest rates of vaccine resistance.

Advanced Symbolics, an Ottawa tech company, has designed an AI program that sifts through social media posts to figure out what’s happening inside the walled gardens of the platforms. They found that the two biggest spreaders of conspiracy theories in Canada were populists—Ontario MPP Randy Hillier and Maxime Bernier, the leader of the PPC.

The same dynamic is at play around the world. A lot of COVID-19 misinformation in Africa and Latin America, for instance, appears to have its roots in right-wing American messaging.

Maxime Bernier at an election rally in Edmonton last September (Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Maxime Bernier at an election rally in Edmonton last September (Artur Widak/NurPhoto/Getty Images)

Another big stream of misinformation comes from the wellness industry. There is often a sales pitch for vitamins connected to the anti-vax nonsense. The best example of that is Joseph Mercola, a wealthy Florida tanning-bed salesman and alternative-medicine proponent who has put millions of dollars into anti-vaccination campaigns.

The messages are often amplified by celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Joe Rogan, who, critics say, share unhelpful health news to get headlines and sell products.

University of Alberta professor Timothy Caulfield, who has spent years cataloguing health misinformation spread by celebrities, has watched, horrified, as the wellness hucksters have softened the ground for dangerous nonsense.

“There’s this strange coming together of the wellness community—traditionally thought of as the libertarian left, even New Age—and the far right,” he says. “They have come together. They really have. And now the wellness industry is an entry point for QAnon.”

QAnon, a ludicrous conspiracy that falsely alleges that many prominent figures are involved in child sex trafficking, is the most dangerous current expression of the paranoid style.

Corey Hurren, the Manitoban who crashed through the fence around Rideau Hall with a loaded firearm apparently meant for Justin Trudeau, believes Bill Gates was behind COVID-19.

Canadian QAnon influencer Romana Didulo, who has tens of thousands of followers, was recently questioned by the RCMP after urging supporters to “shoot to kill anyone who tries to inject children under the age of 19 years old with coronavirus19 vaccines.” In December, Quebec police arrested a Laval father after he posted a news release about a vaccination campaign at his daughter’s school with the comment: “It’s time to go hunting bang bang.”

***

It was back in February 2020, when the world was just waking up to the pandemic, that Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization, warned of what was coming: “We’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic,” he said. “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this coronavirus and is just as dangerous.”

Washington Post writer David J. Rothkopf, who coined the term “infodemic,” called it “a complex phenomenon caused by the interaction of mainstream media, specialist media and internet sites, and ‘informal’ media, which is to say wireless phones, text messaging, pagers, faxes and email, all transmitting some combination of fact, rumour, interpretation and propaganda.” That was in 2003, two years before Facebook went live. It now has almost three billion monthly users—about 40 per cent of the world’s population, including 24 million Canadians.

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Viral fake news spreads quickly on social media platforms. Under pressure, the companies are responding—Meta, Facebook’s parent company, says it has removed 24 million pieces of COVID misinformation from Facebook and Instagram around the world, and Facebook puts labels on COVID content with links to public health sites.

But critics say the platforms have been too slow, and it is hard to know how much misinformation is being shared, because Meta makes it difficult to know what its algorithms are putting in people’s feeds. There’s no Top 10 list or database of the most frequently shared fake videos, and other networks—like Rumble, Parler and Telegram—allow misinformation in the name of free speech.

We can’t know where we would be if it weren’t for misinformation on social media, but we can be sure that more people would be vaccinated, and fewer would have died.

In February, Frank Graves of EKOS Research surveyed Canadians, asking them five questions about COVID. He found almost half of respondents were somewhat misinformed, and eight to 20 per cent had “a very distorted picture.”

Within that latter group, about 70 per cent do not want to get vaccinated. Graves says the fourth wave is “to a large extent” the result of disinformation, mostly from Facebook and YouTube. It is concentrated in the Prairies, and among people who support populists like Trump.

“The evidence is that this group just simply is not accessible to reason, evidence or persuasion,” Graves says. “They’re absolutely convinced that what they know is true and what everybody else knows is false. They don’t consume any mainstream media, which they consider fake news. They don’t trust science. They don’t trust public health.”

University of Toronto epidemiologist David Fisman is sure that is costing lives. “There’s a very strong correlation between being disinformed and declining to be vaccinated,” he says. Because of that, he adds, “something like half the severe illness and death we see being attributable in some degree to misinformation is a reasonable guess.”

Between the middle of August, when COVID case counts were low, and Dec. 1, when they were creeping up again, about 3,000 people died of COVID in Canada. If Fisman is right, about 1,500 dead people could be considered victims of the infodemic.

Consider Twila Flamont, of Yorkton, Sask., who died of COVID in October at the age of 36, leaving six children who will grow up without their mother. Her husband, Derek Langan, told the CBC they didn’t get vaccinated because of conspiracy theories about the vaccines that they read on Facebook.

Or consider Jason Bettcher, an Edmonton iron worker who died in October at the age of 47, leaving a grieving wife, four children and two grandchildren. He posted QAnon and anti-vax memes on his Facebook page. In an anguished post on Facebook, his widow wrote that before he was intubated he told her he would get the shot as soon as he could, but he changed his mind too late.

Or consider Makhan Singh Parhar, 48, of Delta, B.C., who died, likely of COVID, on Nov. 4, after spending years spreading conspiracy theories, including some about COVID. He recorded a video as he became ill, mocking the idea of COVID, which he considered fake news.

Linda Methot Hartley, 65, of Grand Falls, N.B., was luckier. Hartley, a widowed, retired personal care worker, spends a lot of time on Facebook. In 2021, she received an audio file from someone—she can’t recall who—as a Facebook message.

In the five-minute recording, an unidentified woman who calls herself a “natural doctor” says that the vaccines contain “ingredients that are very catastrophic to your cellular system.”

“Once they make you so that your immune system can’t make white blood cells anymore, you become dependent on the boosters to stay alive, just like someone becomes dependent on insulin.” The “doctor” says Big Pharma is doing this to get “re-occurring customers for life.”

This message scared Hartley half to death. She shared it with her friends on Facebook and, although she wasn’t entirely sure, she ultimately decided not to get vaccinated. “I really thought it was true what they were saying, that the government wants to kill us with the vaccines, that it was poison,” she told me in a recent interview.

Hartley got infected with COVID and spent more than a month in hospital, terribly ill. Now, freshly vaccinated and on the road to recovery, she regrets being taken in, and has spoken out publicly, urging people not to be fooled by what they see on Facebook.

“It was a bunch of lies.”

The toll would be even higher if one counts people who were denied treatment for other ailments because of COVID-19. Strang says that while there was little collateral damage in his province, which kept COVID levels low, it took a toll elsewhere. “A lot of people’s health was impacted and [a lot] quite likely died because they couldn’t get the right care at the right time for their non-COVID health-care needs,” he says. “It’s just a very safe assumption to say that the misinformation and the hardcore anti-vax stances have been a major factor behind that.”

***

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), which takes the lead in responding to medical misinformation, has been overwhelmed by the pandemic, struggling to manage vital short-term tasks like enforcing quarantine policy. It does not seem to be acting as effectively as it could in countering misinformation, leaving debunking to be handled by local authorities.

In an email, a spokesperson told me that, to date, PHAC has “largely focused” on “crowding out misinformation by ensuring Canadians have access to factual, evidence-based information.”

PHAC likely doesn’t know the scope of the problem. Much of what happens on Facebook is still unknown—especially in private groups where anti-vaxxers use code words to evade content rules—and the company takes pains to shut down researchers who try to pierce the secrecy veil.

Experts emphasize the need for greater transparency. A recent report from the American Aspen Institute and a 2018 report from the Canadian Public Policy Forum make the same point that Frances Haugen, the Facebook whistleblower, has made to lawmakers: governments need to force the platforms to make their networks more transparent.

For example, the political scientists who found Canadians’ feeds full of American content were unable to determine if Canadians are choosing U.S. content or whether the platforms’ algorithms are pushing it. The dominant medium of 21st-century life—social media—is governed by secret rules set in distant corporate offices, where engagement is prized over other values, like truth.

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In Canada, instead of requiring the platforms to be more transparent, the Liberals are proposing greater controls on hate speech, which appeals to the party’s base, but raises concerns about freedom of expression and will do nothing about misinformation.

“ ‘Let’s do something to show that we’re doing something,’ ” says Amarasingam. “It’s not going to solve the problem they think it’s solving. And it’s not a good trend for civil liberties.”

To harden the body politic against misinformation, we need to encourage critical thinking, do a lot more to promote media literacy and work to maintain public trust in institutions that provide good information. Public health agencies need to be quicker and more aggressive in countering damaging false information.

An anti-vaccine protest in New York in November (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

An anti-vaccine protest in New York in November (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

It will be an uphill battle. American research shows that even students studying misinformation struggle to tell the difference between good and bad sources of information.

But we have no choice but to tackle this problem, in part because it will not go away when the pandemic ends. The dark techniques that social networks have enabled will be manipulated to sow discord and mislead the public about other issues, like climate change and immigration, for example.

Would-be regulators around the world are struggling with this issue, and there are no easy solutions, in part because we must protect the right of Friesen to think and say what he likes if we are to continue to have a free society.

Canada is better placed than many countries are to strike the right balance. The Edelman Trust Barometer, which measures citizens’ trust in institutions around the world, shows that Canadians’ trust level actually increased by three points during the pandemic, and Canada remains ahead of most Western countries, which is reflected in our high vaccination rates.

But our leaders appear complacent, or distracted by partisan struggles. In Europe, which is farther from the American source of so much of the misinformation, lawmakers and regulators have done a lot more. They require regular reporting on disinformation from the platforms, for instance, and have established a hub for fact checkers and experts to monitor the problem and propose regulatory solutions.

There is no silver bullet, no magic solution that will make it all go away, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to push back. The cost of inaction is too high.

***

Friesen, who believes the mainstream media is full of liars, did not respond to my efforts to communicate with him for this article. I wondered if he would change his thinking while he was intubated, as Hartley did, and recognize that he had been deceived and turn against the anti-vax movement when he recovered.

On Nov. 26—two months after his accounts went silent—he posted about his health.

“Today I stood up by myself for more than two minutes,” he wrote. “Progress is being made. I went in on Oct. 4 weighing 260 pounds. Today I weigh 202 pounds. Lots of muscle was consumed by my body while being out for four weeks.”

On. Nov. 29, he posted a photo of himself from when he was intubated, looking gaunt and terribly unwell, unfocused eyes gazing blankly off to one side.

“I’m somewhat convinced this was the moment when the big fella turned me back home to recover and continue the fight for our freedoms,” he wrote.

Friesen’s life was saved by teams of highly trained health-care workers at goodness knows what cost to the rest of us, in terms of both money and health-care capacity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Saskatchewan Health Authority has had to delay about 26,000 elective surgeries because its ICUs are full of unvaccinated COVID patients like Friesen.

And he is still at it, sharing misinformation from his hospital bed, a shadow of his former self, a man who went to death’s door because he refused to take a free vaccine that would have kept him from getting sick.

He’s free to do that, but we are free, in turn, to use him as an example of what can happen to you if you believe things that aren’t true.


This article appears in print in the February 2022 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The next virus.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

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