Conspiracy theorists love a good sheep, they are easy to manipulate and mislead for nefarious ends. But what happens when the sheep herd themselves? I recently participated in a hilarious anti-vax Twitter thread that discussed the claim that the new mRNA vaccines used in the fight against Covid-19 will “kill everyone.” Here is what I learned about how disinformation is spread. It may surprise you.
This discussion began, as these often do, with a prominent conspiracy theorist, in this case, the infamous Alex Jones. Jones, in a video shared widely on Twitter, made the following claims:
“Anyone taking these vaccines….is going to have neurological disorders within one year, most of the people taking the vaccine will be dead within ten….*slaps hand on a stack of papers*…John Hopkins says it all right here.
“I know another person in Texas, whose elderly father, took the vaccine and was dead two days later….I’m sitting here watching them kill people.”
Leaving aside the, shall we say, casual relationship that Jones has with the truth, it is worth analyzing not solely the claims made by Jones, but rather the discussion that followed from people who share similar beliefs. This might give us insight into how the disinformation machine really functions, and how a shared delusion is reinforced.
First, my attention was drawn to one of the most popular responses to Jones’s video, where a Confidently Incorrect Twitter user confirmed Jones’s statements…with actual medical research.
This user, kindly shared a link to research done by one J. Bart Classen, MD.
Now I am intrigued, this is no longer just Alex Jones’s rambling anymore, we have real medical doctors with a real study. So let’s examine this the claims made in this study. Open and link and review it for yourself.
To the uninitiated, this study would indeed look genuine and convincing. It is written in the format of a typical medical publication, it is loaded, some might say overloaded, with medical jargon, that makes it difficult for laypeople to understand.
But a skeptical eye reveal a number of glaring issues. The first and most obvious: the length. The article makes the groundbreaking claim that the mRNA vaccines are unsafe and will cause Alzheimer’s disease in those who take them, but it makes this assertion in a whopping three pages.
More precisely, excluding the abstract and citations, about two pages. Anyone who has read a medical journal before will know that is remarkably, almost laughably, short.
Part of the reason the article is vertically challenged is Dr. Classen fails to provide detail as to the methodology through which he came to his conclusions. In fact, as far a methodology is concerned, we get a measly two sentences:
The vaccine RNA was analyzed for the presence of sequences that can activate TDP-43 and FUS. The interaction of the transcribed spike protein with its target was analyzed to determine if this action could also activate TDP-43 and FUS.
The purpose of research is to explain how one came to their conclusions, and to make those instructions clear so that other scientists can replicate and verify the work. Classen doesn’t provide any detail for how he “analyzed” the vaccine RNA.
For Dr. Classen, who is obviously claiming to be in the position to save millions of lives, wouldn’t it behoove him to add at least a few more sentences here? It’s almost as if Classen doesn’t want his work replicated...perhaps because it can’t be?
But Classen’s troubles are just beginning, of the citations that his article cites to buttress its claims, nearly a fifth of them are…his own. This reminds me of a certain Trump trade advisor, whom I will not name, who cited himself under an anagram of his own name to support his conclusions. I’m not kidding, I wish I were. At least Classen is upfront about it, I suppose.
This is the adult version of turning in your high school ethics paper and citing yourself over and over again to support your conclusion that it is ethically appropriate to cite yourself in support of your own beliefs.
Looking further, the publisher of the article, SciVision Publishers, is suspect. Indeed, SciVision Publishers is labeled as a “predatory” academic journal for those who track substandard journal publications that often fail adhere to academic rigor.
Dr. Classen’s “study” appears more a vehicle, an encapsulated pill, if you will, designed to make it easy to swallow an anti-vax agenda, rather than a genuine inquiry into the safety of mRNA vaccines. Indeed, the opening line of the article states, “Vaccines have been found to cause a host of chronic, late developing adverse events.”
As vaccines have been used, in some form or another, for literally several hundred years, this is a sweeping statement that encompasses a wide variety of vaccine types, and I find it quite sad that this opening assertion, as it were, has only one citation…Dr. Classen himself.
But Wait, What Does This Have to Do With Johns Hopkins?!
Nothing. The document shared by Confidently Incorrect Twitter user didn’t even go as far a Jones did, with the wild assertion that in ten years, much of the world’s population will be dead. Twitter users are sharing something that doesn’t confirm what they think it does.
But…Alex Jones slammed his hand on a report from Johns Hopkins, not once, but twice, so we know he found something! What is it?
One Twitter user, whom I’ll call Concerned MAGA Dog, whose Twitter page was adorned with American flags and frequently re-shared false claims that Biden was installed in a coup, was very helpful in this regard. Concerned MAGA Dog admonished my retorts of Jones’s infinite wisdom by providing me a copy of the John’s Hopkins report itself. I love when people do my work for me.
At first glance, I was intrigued again. This report, in fact, does come from Johns Hopkins and is available for download on the Johns Hopkins website. I encourage you to check it out. It is ominously entitled the “SPARS PANDEMIC.”
But for anyone who actually clicked the link and opened the website, it would have been immediately obvious that there was a problem. This document is labeled a “completed project” that was completed in October 2017…several years prior to the emergence of the Sars Cov-2 virus that causes Covid-19, and long before mRNA vaccines, the focus of Jones’s tirade, were on the market.
I thought, wait, what if this report could see the future? Like the Oracle of Mar-a-Lago, who “predicted” election fraud months before votes were cast, could this report indeed foresee a future that hadn’t yet occurred? It seems the far right wing is filled with modern oracles…I guess you never know. So, I opened the report and dived in.
That’s when the next clue should have dawned upon those giddily clicking the retweet button. On page 6 there is a disclaimer that takes an entire page to warn readers that this report is a hypothetical thought experiment. It states, very clearly (my emphasis added):
Disclaimer: This is a hypothetical scenario designed to illustrate the public health risk communication challenges that could potentially emerge during a naturally occurring infectious disease outbreak requiring development and distribution of novel and/or investigational drugs, vaccines, therapeutics, or other medical countermeasures. The infectious pathogen, medical countermeasures, characters, news media excerpts, social media posts, and government agency responses described herein are entirely fictional.
Ironically, the very first chapter is entitled: POSSIBLE FUTURE IN 2025: THE “ECHO CHAMBER” and opens with:
The following narrative comprises a futuristic scenario that illustrates communication dilemmas concerning medical countermeasures (MCMs) that could plausibly emerge in the not-so-distant future.
Skimming a little further….
In the year 2025, the world has become simultaneously more connected, yet more divided. Nearly universal access to wireless internet and new technology….has provided the means for readily sharing news and information. However, many have chosen to self-restrict the sources they turn to for information, often electing to interact only with those with whom they agree.
It cannot be, can it? Alex Jones supporters are blindly circulating a document that they believe confirms Jones’s claim that mRNA vaccines will kill most within ten years….but the document is actually a hypothetical case study in the very phenomena of fake medical information and filter bubbles in the era of social media. Can we get a more poetic irony than that?
With some Control+F magic, I scanned the entire document just to be sure. The words “Covid,” mRNA, and SARs COV 2 virus do not appear anywhere in this document. There is also no claims of vaccines killing people after ten years.
And best part, page 67 gives a glowing endorsement of…you guessed it, vaccines!
The very real possibility of a future SPARS pandemic necessitates continued commitment to vaccination programs as well as accurate, culturally appropriate, and timely communication from public health agencies across the planet.
So Alex Jones supporters either are unable to read or haven’t bothered to do even the most minimal amount of skimming before sharing things online. They are inadvertently sharing documents that disprove the very case they were trying to make.
As for the person who sent me this document, I replied that they should actually read it and skip to page 67, after which they went silent and stopped responding in that thread. I like to think that I may have pulled a poor soul from the cult of Jones, but I am sure they have found a way of rationalizing their false beliefs another way.
I’ve encountered this phenomenon before when dealing with Covid deniers as well. There is a baffling ability to share links and articles without reading them. Some months ago, they were sharing a Forbes article entitled “The Pandemic That Wasn't” which they asserted was proof that the Covid-19 pandemic was a hoax.
The problem is that the article they were sharing was written 10 years before, about the H1N1 outbreak. All one had to do was actually click the link and read the red disclaimer that would pop up noting that this article was indeed, not about Covid-19, but no one did that. They shared it anyway.
“I’m…Watching Them Kill People”
Now, what about Jones’s claim that an elderly associate of his died two days after receiving the vaccine? Is Jones making this up also? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s true, a lot of vaccinated people will die this year…but not because of the vaccine.
There are about 330 Million people living in the United States, and about 2.8 Million die in a normal year. (Note that the death total was substantially higher in 2020, despite Covid-denier claims to the contrary). As of this writing, about 110 Million Americans received at least one vaccine dose, or about 1/3 of population.
Simple math would place about 900 thousand vaccinated people dying within a year of being vaccinated, and this is probably an underestimation because vaccinations skew older. Yes, vaccinated people will die, but correlation does not equate to causation, it’s just simply what happens when you vaccinate over 1/3 of the total population, some of that population won’t be here next year.
Ironically, the same individuals that wrote off Covid-19 deaths as truly caused by commodities like cancer, obesity, and heart disease, are now willing to attribute any and all deaths to the vaccine. But unlike the 550K deaths attributed, at least in part, to Covid-19, there is no casual relationship established from those receiving the vaccine.
In the conspiracy world, you’d think everyone missed statistics class. There exists no understanding of the difference between correlation and causation. Indeed, this total lack of understanding was evident early on in the Pandemic when this graph was commonly shared, which claimed to show a relationship between 5G cell towers and Covid-19 cases.
The claim, of course, was that 5G caused Covid-19, when in reality all that graph shows is where people live. Populated areas have more 5G cell towers, and populated area have more cases of Covid-19, because, you know, there are more people.
As for Jones’s claim that vaccine takers will have neurological problems within a year, this is easily disproved because the first human subject received their mRNA vaccines over one year prior. Note also, that mRNA vaccines have been used in human since 2009, if not on a large scale, with no long term adverse effects of this kind.
When I presented this fact in the Twitter thread, I was rebuked. When I supplied articles to the contrary, I was called a “sheeple” who listens to the “MSM.”
Therein lies the problem. Facts that run counter to their narrative were immediately dismissed. It was like talking to a brick wall that insists it’s a chicken. The wall is objectively not a chicken, but the wall doesn’t listen to any counterarguments either.
A Blight on the Western World
One could forgive skeptical people for questioning the long term safety of mRNA vaccines, which are new to the market. I am not here to judge the vaccines themselves, but it is evident that many of those questioning and sharing their skepticism aren’t actually engaging in reasoned inquiry, but rather seeking out information and peer approval that confirms their preordained beliefs. In other words, classic confirmation bias.
The thousands of studies confirming the safety of vaccines are ignored and the one or two studies suggesting otherwise are placed on the proverbial pedestal. And yet, as I came to learn, anyone who challenges their established narrative is labeled a “sheeple.” A virtue signal label that discredits that individual as someone who is not to be listened to.
And much like the “Big Lie” of election fraud, often circulated by the same individuals, the sheer number of allegations makes these malicious rumors impossible to effectively counter.
It took only minutes for individuals to share their false beliefs online, but it took me hours to write this article countering them. This is in accordance with Brandolini’s law, otherwise known as the Bullshit Asymmetry Principle. It takes an order of magnitude more time and effort to disprove false information than it does to create it.
My anecdotal experience in this Twitter thread taught me that while not everyone was an Alex Jones devotee, many shared similar beliefs as him. Alex Jones planted a seed of doubt online, but it was their fellow Twitter peers that gently helped each other climb down the beanstalk into the rabbit hole of a shared delusion.
The spread of lies online and the propensity of people to reshare them is a shameful embarrassment to the Western world and a stinging indictment of our education system for failing to instill basic critical thinking skills in our students.
We don’t need to teach people what to think, but we should give them the tools, knowledge, and wisdom, so they know how to think for themselves. The future of Western civilization is at stake.
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