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How American Influencers Built a World Wide Web of Vaccine Disinformation – Mother Jones

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Last year, Saphinah Kenyando was struggling to decide whether to get vaccinated against Covid. Kenyando, who is 38 and teaches chemistry and biology at a high school in Kenya, had read about horrifying side effects—blood clots, long-term disabilities—that sounded worse than the virus itself. She watched a (possibly doctored) clip from former US President Donald Trump saying that the effects included gruesome facial deformities that develop as a person ages. And she wondered whether the rumors circulating on Facebook, WhatsApp, and YouTube were true—that a person could take the jab and drop dead shortly thereafter.

In addition to her academic role, Kenyando also serves as the school chess coach, a duty she takes very seriously. She believes the game imparts valuable lessons to students: Make the right move, and you’ll reap the benefits. Make the wrong one, and you’ll be forced to deal with the fallout. “Chess is life,” she says. “Every decision we make in life is about the game of chess.” That’s how Kenyando framed her own decision on whether to get herself and her children vaccinated against Covid. She decided to hold off until she had more information.

Public Good Project/Nimbus Capture

Which narrative takes off in any given country depends on the culture and history of the place. In May 2020, Kenyan evangelical pastor Fred Akama posted a rant on Facebook, which began “THE GATES OF BILL SHALL NOT PREVAIL.” Bill Gates “predicted that a viral pandemic would hit the world,” the post continued, with the clear implication that the philanthropist was somehow complicit in and profiting from the creation and spread of Covid. Akama also accused Gates of having unethically close ties with the World Health Organization and vaccine producers and called him an enemy of the Christian faith. He has more than 15,000 followers on Facebook. 

Akama wasn’t the only social media influencer in Kenya warning about Bill Gates’ motives. “If you look at the kind of stuff that is circulating in East Africa…you find that the content seems to be very similar,” says Eric Mugendi, who works at Meedan, a San Francisco–based technology nonprofit supporting fact-checking and verification of organizations. “The kind of language that was being used and the types of people who were spreading it—a lot of times it was religious leaders,” Mugendi says, arguing that anti-vaxxers often link their arguments to Gates and liberal philanthropist George Soros. They accuse them of wanting to test vaccines’ efficacy on Africans, profit from vaccine sales, control the human population through microchipping, and prevent the growth of the African population. 

“The unifying factor is encouraging distrust of elites and experts and Westerners on any level.”

Disinformation campaigns that play up nefarious motives of powerful people are common worldwide. In the United States, a widely shared video called Plandemic popularized the conspiracy theory about Gates early in the pandemic. This strain of disinformation is particularly effective in Africa because of deep-seated anxiety that Western governments want to slow population growth in the developing world, notes Wilson of Brandeis University. “The unifying factor is encouraging distrust of elites and experts and Westerners on any level,” he says. 

Ultraconservative groups in Africa have a long history of spinning a variety of Gates conspiracy theories. The anti-abortion movement in Africa has employed this tactic for at least a decade. In a 2017 article in Pacific Standard, Kathryn Joyce reported on a prominent Nigerian anti-abortion activist Obianuju Ekeocha, who in 2012 spoke out against a Gates Foundation contraceptives campaign. American anti-choice groups helped Ekeocha create a new group, Culture of Life Africa. This complemented an ongoing campaign by Human Life International, a hardline US anti-abortion group operating around the world. Its mission? To spread the message that “Western governments and NGOs are using great sums of money and influence to destroy the traditionally life-loving African culture.”

There’s a convergence these days between seemingly unrelated public health issues, as many of the same US-sponsored organizations that oppose abortion have pivoted their messaging to address Covid vaccinations. One such group is CitizenGO, an ultraconservative petition mill with outposts worldwide. CitizenGO Africa, whose anti-abortion work Mother Jones covered here, is led by a Kenyan woman named Ann Kioko, who was trained in workshops by the American Leadership Institute, a conservative organization that counts former Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), and Karl Rove among its distinguished alumni. 

In 2020, CitizenGo posted an online petition titled “Bill Gates and WHO: Hands Off Africa” intended to send a “firm message to the Bill Gates Foundation and the World Health Organization that Africa is not a test lab, Africans are people with human dignity and Africans will not be used to try vaccines whose purpose is not known.” The petition accuses Gates of having Covid vaccines “tested on Africa as he stages them [vaccines] as the only solution to the pandemic.” It also accuses Bill and Melinda Gates of attempting to control the African population via contraception and abortion. “Melinda Gates told the Washington Post she is frustrated with the Trump administration’s decision to cut funding for international ‘reproductive-rights projects,’ (READ ABORTION) calling it ‘incredibly disappointing,’” the petition read. 

In some ways, the extreme paranoia about birth control efforts could be understandable, given the legacy of the staggering violence of colonialism in Africa—and that history of exploitation continually undermines public health campaigns. But it was a specific strain of disinformation about a tetanus vaccine that allowed rumors about secret forced sterilization to flourish. Alphonce Shiundu, the Kenya editor of Africa Check, a fact-checking nonprofit that promotes accuracy in public debates and the media, says his organization has traced the origins of this myth to an event in 1994. Researchers in India were “developing a contraceptive vaccine to help women prevent unplanned pregnancy.” Its active ingredient was part of a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, known as hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. To make the vaccine, researchers “coupled hCG to a protein similar to the tetanus toxin.” When a woman was jabbed, her immune system would fight both the protein and the hCG hormone, an Africa Check report recounted. 

Although this contraceptive vaccine was completely unrelated to the tetanus vaccine, the American anti-abortion group Human Life International leveraged the research from India and used it to mount a disinformation campaign in Mexico, the Philippines, and Nicaragua, claiming that the tetanus vaccine alone would reduce a woman’s fertility without her knowledge. 

The World Health Organization tried to quash the rumors and followed up with extensive independent testing and found that, “without exception, when interpreted by independent laboratory staff, including those in the Philippines that conducted the original tests which started the rumor, all samples of tetanus toxoid vaccine have proved negative for hCG.”

“If tetanus toxoid vaccines given to millions of women in many countries were capable of causing infertility there would by now be ample demographic data to confirm this. We know of no such data.”

Even MaterCare International, a group of Catholic obstetricians and gynecologists, issued a statement saying, “If tetanus toxoid vaccines given to millions of women in many countries were capable of causing infertility there would by now be ample demographic data to confirm this. We know of no such data.”

But the damage was done.

Fast-forward two decades: In 2014, the Kenya Catholic Bishops Association fought vigorously against a tetanus vaccination campaign in the country. Perhaps the most prominent anti-vaxxer was Dr. Stephen Karanja, previously the chair of the Kenya Catholic Doctors Association. (In addition to his assault on the tetanus vaccine, Karanja opposed schoolgirls being vaccinated against cervical cancer, arguing that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine was unnecessary because it affected those “whose lifestyle involves irresponsible sexual behaviors.”) And in 2019, a Facebook post by a Kenyan user that was made to look like a news article made the rounds in Kenya, announcing: “Abortion drugs discovered in Bill Gates’ vaccines. UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have been accused of secretly sterilizing millions of women in Africa by doctors in Kenya after abortion drugs were discovered in tetanus [vaccines].” 

Unsurprisingly, when Covid vaccines became available in Kenya in 2021, Karanja came out vehemently against them, recommending hydroxychloroquine tablets instead. He died of complications from Covid last year. Karanja’s death didn’t stop other Kenyan influencers from running with his infertility narrative. Public health experts are trying hard to counter it, but they have found time and again that the distrust of the West has staying power, says Shiundu. “The anti-vaccination movement just keeps harping on it and just keeps redirecting it every time.” 

Now, in Kenya and other parts of the developing world, public health experts worry that anti-vaccine activists will leverage fear and uncertainty around Covid vaccines to undermine long-standing and highly effective vaccination programs in the developing world. There are signs of this happening already, even as global nonprofits are fighting the disinformation at its source. UNICEF and the Public Good Projects have teamed up to monitor and report new strains of vaccine disinformation as they emerge with a surveillance tool called the Vaccination Demand Observatory. On their public dashboard, which is updated weekly, anyone can see examples of social media posts making false claims about vaccines. In April, the VDO dashboard reported upticks in disinformation around the vaccines for cholera in Bangladesh, rotavirus in Egypt, and typhoid in Nepal. That trend is particularly worrying in the context of pandemic-related disruptions in routine vaccination programs. According to the World Health Organization, as of May 2022, vaccination campaigns in 43 countries are still postponed. In April, WHO warned of a “perfect storm” of conditions for a measles outbreak, noting that in many countries an uptick in cases had already begun.

In Kenya, vaccine denial and rejection also fosters a dangerous economy of charlatans “selling health misinformation,” says Mugendi of Meedan. The Kenyan health system is biased toward the rich. Those who can afford good treatment buy it. Those who can’t, take shortcuts. People try dangerous treatments to find a silver-bullet cure at low cost, which creates an underground market of false cures and false hope. It also “makes people question genuine actors in the space,” Mugendi says.

“I was told that when you’re injected, exactly after four months you will die.”

Disinformation thrives even in rural places with limited access to social media. Hayi Hassan, 62, and Hussein Ali, 75, are Somali animal herders living in Northeast Kenya who didn’t get the vaccine because they’d heard it could cause blood clots or death. “I was told that when you’re injected, exactly after four months you will die,” Ali says. Neither of them believes Covid is serious. “I haven’t seen any people dying in Garissa town, so I’m probably safe,” he says. What’s more, as elders, they figure they’ll likely die soon anyway. At their age, the idea of walking 37 miles in the blazing sun to get to the nearest hospital for a jab they think they don’t need sounds ludicrous.  

Through word of mouth, says Public Good Project’s Smyser, anti-vaccine messages take on a life of their own. In one case study in Papua New Guinea, the team looked at the spread of vaccine disinformation in a remote village. “Nobody had a phone, except for one guy who used to climb up to the top of the hill, and climb a tree, and hold the phone up, and download a bunch of stuff,” Smyser recalled. “And then he’d bring it back down and the whole village would read it.” 

Public Good Project/Nimbus Capture

The very ubiquity of these rumors makes combating them a challenge. Yet some fact-checking agencies report that they have made modest progress. On a recent day, the Vaccine Demand Observatory’s tool reviewing social media posts included one on false claims about Covid vaccines for children in Vietnam, another about rumors about vaccine dangers promoted by Bangladeshi politicians, and another on disinformation about the safety of Covid vaccines for older adults in East Timor. This kind of surveillance isn’t for the general public as much as for researchers, who can learn a lot from tracking the paths of disinformation in real time.

The global development nonprofit IREX has developed media literacy curricula that it tailors to individual countries. “It’s going to look different depending on the content and the context, geography, culture,” says Katya Vogt, the director of the project. “You can’t just create one multi-use tool.” In Ukraine, for instance, the group worked within the school system, weaving lessons on how to identify disinformation tactics into the literature, social studies, and history lessons. In Tunisia and Jordan, the program administrators determined that it would be more effective to train youth leaders to teach groups of their peers and create their own social media content about spotting disinformation. 

In Kenya, nonprofits are working to improve media and digital literacy. Africa Check has hired a slew of Fact Ambassadors to promote accurate information through Kenya’s social media and other channels. Those ambassadors “will come back to us with anecdotes about how they sent something to one of their relatives in a WhatsApp group who kept on sending all these conspiracy theories and treatment regimens for Covid-19,” says Shiundu of Africa Check. “And these people, after they reluctantly read, they were exposed to accurate information, and they slowly updated their beliefs.” 

Saphinah Kenyando

Lameck Orina

Last year, Kenyando, the school teacher who wavered on the Covid vaccine, was virtually introduced to Peter Ongera, a Fact Ambassador, who helped correct some of the misinformation and disinformation she’d absorbed over the past two years. Kenyando had another compelling reason to get the jab: One of her students had qualified for the African Individual School chess championship, and Kenyando needed to be vaccinated to travel to Ghana, where the tournament would be held. 

Kenyando got the shot. Then she took her children to get vaccinated. “I took them having done my own analysis,” she says. She listed her reasoning as wanting to “protect myself and family because of the nature of [my] work. As a teacher and sports lady I interact with so many people,” and because it “was a requirement from the employer to have all teachers vaccinated.”

But she worries that the same myths she saw are still circulating. “The falsehoods about the Covid vaccine, much of it was online,” she says. “There is power in information. Irrespective of how it comes, the first moment that somebody gets the information, they take it as the true Gospel.” 

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