In the past several years, social media has given a soap box to a previously niche group of people who are against vaccination. This group, known colloquially as anti-vaxxers, fabricates stories about the danger of vaccines in attempt to discredit them. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has given some members of this faction an opportunity to spread more anti-vaccine propaganda, and it’s starting to make its way to the mainstream.
A new report from Yonder, a company that dissects popular social media interactions to understand trends, has found that stalwart anti-vaxxers are pushing a narrative that vitamin C can prevent COVID-19. There is currently no evidence that vitamin C is a treatment or cure for the coronavirus.
Yonder CEO Jonathon Morgan says conversations around vitamin C began on 4Chan, but anti-vaxxers have been able to drive that messaging to the broader media landscape. Below are a few examples of messages that the anti-vaccine faction is spreading:
- “Apart from ensuring a balanced diet, in the particular case of coronavirus, there is need to take more foods rich in Vitamin C such as oranges and folic acid in bananas, says the President. #COVID19UG #COVID19”
- “IV Vit C 10-20 grams treating #COVID19? 50 Treated, all recovered. No Side effects. Dr. Richard Cheng MD, PhD, Shanghai Pandemic in China is over.”
- “If you got the #FluShot, you are more susceptible to the #CoronaVirus according to the National Institute of Health, US National Library of Medicine #Covid_19 #COVID19”
Yonder analyzes the words these groups use to track how far their messages go. The company’s algorithms use hashtags and even phrases as unique identifiers to follow the trajectory of conversations across social media. Morgan says the first time his company noticed the vitamin C narrative hitting mainstream news was when CNN published a piece debunking the idea that vitamin C can cure or prevent COVID-19.
CNN’s story explains and disproves several myths around the coronavirus, including one that says taking supplements like vitamin C or zinc will prevent COVID-19. The story was shared widely, in part by fringe groups. It may seem counterintuitive that such groups would want to share links that debunk their messaging. However, for these people, this story presented an opportunity to correct the corrective.
Morgan says that while redressing misinformation is good, it can also have the unintended affect of amplifying the original messaging. Just take the replies to CNN’s tweet sharing its story—there are several arguments as to why CNN is wrong and vitamin C is helpful for fighting the coronavirus.
He says that fringe groups are able to elevate stories that fit their agenda through repetition. “They advocate for it repetitively online, and ultimately they’re able to convince someone who, for whatever reason, is vulnerable to that story,” says Morgan.
Counteracting false information is good in that it gives people an opportunity to latch onto truth, but it also makes people more aware of the existence of spurious claims.
“There is this mode of conception that if you just counter narrative hard enough, you can beat the [misinformation]—and I don’t think it works that way,” says Morgan.
On social media, agenda-driven groups and news outlets or public health officials present as two voices shouting loudly at one another. Online, these voices are equal in part because we are living in an era when people are especially distrusting of democratic institutions like the press. It is also difficult to discern experts from fraudsters when all accounts and posts look the same on social media. On Twitter, all parties get the same 280 characters to convey their message.
Anti-vaxxers are not just falsely promoting the idea that vitamin C can prevent COVID-19. The group is also using reporting about actual COVID-19 treatments to further its agenda. A few outlets have reported that doctors in China and the U.S. are administering heavy doses of vitamin C intravenously as part of a treatment for COVID-19. The vitamin C is being used in combination with other drugs like hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin. In an interview with The New York Post, Dr. Andrew Weber, a pulmonologist at Northwell Health on Long Island, says the reason for giving patients vitamin C is because their normal levels of vitamin C drop when the body overreacts to an infection, a condition known as sepsis. The vitamin C infusions are meant to boost low levels of vitamin C.
There are also several clinical trials testing various drug regimens against COVID-19 that include vitamin C as one of the supplements. These regimens also include hydroxychloroquine, azithromycin, vitamin D, vitamin A, and zinc. While there is currently no evidence that vitamin C on its own can treat or prevent COVID-19 or pneumonia associated with COVID-19, these bits of information shared out of context by agenda-driven groups create the illusion that basic supplements might be the best answer to COVID-19.
This ultimately makes journalists’ job of truth-telling more difficult. Rather than appearing as a standard bearer of truth online, news outlets can look like just another account, screaming into the void. “No one has ever shouted loud enough at me that it’s changed my view on anything,” Morgan says.
Not all anti-vaxxers have been emboldened by COVID-19. Vice reports that some anti-vaxxers feel this pandemic is so detrimental to both society and the greater health system that using a vaccine to develop immunity may be necessary. Even as some anti-vaxxers continue to push misinformation online, the scale of COVID-19’s impact has people previously captivated by anti-vaccine rhetoric considering the benefit of herd immunity.