A small group of officials from City Hall and the Department of Public Health have been studying detailed reports for nearly a year on how misinformation about the vaccine has spread across New York City.
A review of more than eight months worth of these “misinformation bulletins” obtained by The Times reveals that the city has gathered comprehensive intelligence on the misunderstandings and conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19 and swirling across five districts. The purpose of the project was to help adapt Covid-19 drives to diverse and sometimes island communities in New York City, and to defeat the virus to push the city toward normalcy.
Misrepresentation reports – the vast majority of which come from public posts on social media – also offer an interesting historical report: an insight into what New Yorkers read, watched, and sometimes misunderstood the disease that shook their city.
Overall, this is a case study of what an efficient city government can do and what public health requires in 2021.
Reports were needed only because not everyone cheered for the coronavirus to lose.
In January and February this year, the city found leaflets aimed at the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, falsely suggesting that Covid-19 mRNA vaccines could alter human DNA and were only 0.5 percent effective.
In March, the city’s Polish community was treated with false claims that mRNA vaccines were designed to “annihilate Christianity and the Polish nation”. A March city report describes rumors prevalent in New York’s Haitian neighborhoods that vaccines were created to reduce the black population.
In July, project analysts tracked down misinformation about the vaccine shared by writer Alex Berenson, a former New York Times employee. In August, analysts drew attention to the “misleading” claims of Oren Barzilay, who runs a union representing emergency medical workers of the fire department.
Issues related to Covid-19 and its introduction.
Each of these misinformations was reported to the city service Vaccination center, a high – level group in the town hall set up to help oversee the New York vaccination campaign.
The Vaccination Center has been ordering regular reports of such misinformation for almost a year now. The intelligence in the reports is collected by a group of about 15 people within the city’s health department, a handful of other city officials, and the research firm GroupSense. The reports are then passed on to city officials involved in the vaccination effort in New York City.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokeswoman Danielle Filson said the city embarked on the project because “understanding the specifics of myths is key to dispelling them and educating the public with facts based on scientific reality.”
“New Yorkers deserve to know the truth, and when it comes to such important matters as the vaccine, it is our moral obligation to ensure that they have it,” Ms. Filson wrote in an email.
Some reports suggest that some of the anti-vaccine activities observed online had their roots in disinformation campaigns linked to the Russian government. On June 8, GroupSense analysts said they agreed with another research firm known as Graphika that the anti-vaccine cartoon, published on a website dedicated to promoting far-right conspiracy theories, was “consistent with a pro-Russian disinformation campaign. “This campaign was attributed to people affiliated with the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.
Efforts have uncovered conspiracy theories in at least a dozen languages, from Spanish to Urdu. Among the most terrifying lies: boils have occurred in vaccinated people; vaccines magnetize the body; “deep state operatives” developed vaccines along with the military. All nonsense.
Reports that have not been made public distinguish between misinformation – the unintentional dissemination of inaccurate information – and misinformation that is not only inaccurate but likely malicious.
Some reports raise privacy concerns, or at least questions about whether such an effort should have any independent oversight. One June bulletin, for example, states that a lawyer for a New York City anti-vaccine group that promotes the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 is a scam attended a protest rally on May 21 this year in Manhattan’s Foley Square. The bulletin appointed a lawyer.
City officials accompanying citizens participating in legally protected gatherings is a difficult matter, especially in a city that has allowed its police departments to fly spy about Muslim communities and run an ongoing database almost entirely innocent citizens, mostly black men.
But Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the work of health officials on misinformation seems far less problematic because, among other things, efforts use publicly available information to educate the public rather than infiltrate and target special communities for law enforcement measures. “Context and purpose make all the difference in the world,” she said.
For the most part, the reports are not focused on individual people. City officials have apparently used intelligence wisely so far to help design a vaccination campaign in New York City, adjusting their reach to address specific misinformation or conspiracy theories circulating in specific communities.
In January, Vaccination Center analysts warned city officials when a widespread WhatsApp message misinformed thousands of New Yorkers that they believed the Brooklyn Army Terminal vaccination site had a large sum of extra doses, triggering a rush to the facility.
In Hasidic areas of Brooklyn, city officials said they learned from reports of misinformation that antibody testing was being misused to determine who should be vaccinated. Ministry of Health officials worked with community representatives to try to resolve this misunderstanding.
Newsletters in the newsletters also reported on the work of health departments for advertising, recipients distributing vaccine literature on street corners, and city workers calling and encouraging older New Yorkers to get vaccinated.
When analysts found that many people in Caribbean communities in Brooklyn mistakenly believed that vaccines cause infertility, city officials were able to take action and address these fears in townhouses, phone calls, and worship houses in those communities. This is sharp thinking from New York’s “deep state” – or, as they are called in the real world, civil servants.
Although the success of monitoring misinformation is difficult to assess, city officials believe it has had an impact. Between June 14 and July 31, the vaccination rates in zip codes targeted by the campaign in the Caribbean and the Americas increased by 15 percent among blacks, according to city officials, modestly better than the 11- percentage increase across the city.
There are limits to what city authorities can do, especially since, as the reports show, the role of right-wing media and social media companies in disseminating misinformation is extensive. This includes major platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp.
In July, city health officials sent a letter to Facebook and Twitter urging companies to take “immediate action” to remove such content from their platforms. Health ministry officials said Facebook did not respond. They said they were planning a phone conversation with Twitter executives to address their concerns. No one I’ve talked to in the city government is holding their breath.
As the flow of misinformation only increases, it is best that city officials can hope to better understand what they are dealing with.