the home of online investigations

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the following link:

“Satanic” Vaccines And Satire Gone Wild: COVID-19 Disinfo Meets Religion

April 15, 2020

By Natalia Antonova

There is no such thing as harmless disinformation during a pandemic. Yet COVID-19 disinformation spreading within and about religious communities deserves particular attention.

Why? 

Think about it this way: Within insular groups, especially those that are critical and/or suspicious of science, lies and misleading information about a global health crisis can spread faster than a virus.

Misconceptions influence behavior. When more people underestimated the virus, it affected how they interacted with each other. Some are still underestimating the virus today. For example, there are those who believe that religious gatherings should be exempt from lockdowns and social distancing recommendations, as we have seen in Kansas and elsewhere, for example

There has been a lot of flippancy on social media over how religious communities choose to act in response to the virus, with this being a fairly standard response:

Flippancy on social media is nothing new, but we have to be aware of the fact that “Darwin-award winning” fundamentalists are still going to infect other people. Unless you’re living on an island, completely cut off from the outside world, your day-to-day decisions in a pandemic affect others and others’ decisions affect you, especially as healthcare systems become overwhelmed. 

Religious communities are especially at risk because of emphasis on collective worship — this means both acting collectively, and getting together in the same space to pray, to perform religious study, and so on. These people will then go on to interact with cashiers at the store, with neighbors in the street, and so on. The threat will not be contained.

In The Conversationalist (full disclosure: I was the co-founder of the organization that helped launch this website and have contributed to it in the past), Chrissy Stroop has written a breakdown of how Christian extremism in particular can threaten public health. It is important to note, however, that other religious communities can and have ignored the rules on social distancing — and that this is a worldwide problem with many different contributing factors. 

If you are doing research in this area, it’s important to keep your eyes on the big picture, and to allow for nuance.

Overlapping Disinformation Vectors

For an open source researcher, one interesting area of study is how different topics can overlap in the pandemic conspiracy fever swamps. Your personal experiences may be of use here as you pick a particular topic to research. 

I live in the United States and grew up in the so-called Bible Belt, for example — and am therefore interested in keeping a close eye on how disinformation can be accelerated by existing hot button issues in the local Christian communities. 

One hot button issue for American Christian conservatives is abortion. After hearing from multiple readers that conservative Christians were linking abortion to a possible COVID-19 vaccine, I became intrigued as to how these topics play off each other on social media.

I typed in two search terms, abortion and vaccines, into the Twitter search bar recently, as if I were a layperson, doing a casual search on the subject. 

Here’s what immediately came up for me in the top search:

First there is Twitter, immediately trying to redirect me to an official government website about vaccines (thanks, Twitter!).

Then I immediately get a tweet by a conservative commentator accusing pro-choicers of hypocrisy on vaccines, with a linked article. I must keep in mind that my feed will be tailored — and so this is what you must also keep in mind as you do your own searches.

Scroll down a bit, and the links between abortions and vaccines are argued more explicitly by other Twitter users. 

Here you can see the latest top tweets by adding min_faves:250 or whatever number you want, so you can get your eyeballs on what other people are favoriting at this time. 

This is what I got recently, via another casual search:

If I am a regular person who isn’t familiar with the issues involved and is trying to find out more, what is the picture that I am going to get? That’s right, that evil abortionists are using the pandemic to push dangerous vaccines on people — and worse.

You can do simple searches like this for any number of disinformation vectors — though I highly recommend this TweetDeck guide from my colleague, Charlotte Godart, if you want to save yourself some time when doing more specific, targeted research. 

Hopping over to Facebook, I type in coronavirus and abortion, doing another casual search, and am greeted with this in the “All” search column (as you can see in the left column, I can tailor my results to where I currently live, such as Washington D.C. or, another city where I’ve lived, such as Kyiv, Ukraine, but once again, I am trying to mimic a casual search here):

Because I’m searching for coronavirus, Facebook is immediately instructing me on safety measures — which is not bad. 

This is immediately followed by articles from reputable media outlets and the WHO’s official Facebook page: 

Nice! 

Next, I click on the “Posts” tab, as a person might when they want to know what their friends are saying about a particular issue:

Facebook provides me with a selection of posts by my friends and their friends. 

IMPORTANT: Here is where you must remember that most of your friends are likely to be of the same ideological bent/background as you are! 

I live in a densely populated urban area and many of my friends are liberal/progressive — this augments my Facebook experience. 

Imagine what a member of a tight-knit religious community might be seeing? A person with many conservative Christian relatives who are very active on Facebook?

A Twitter follower of mine from a rural Midwestern town, with many conservative Christian relatives, sent me some screenshots of what happened when they searched for similar content on Facebook. Here is one of their top results — a video on how Bill Gates is driven by Satan to spread dangerous vaccines:

Here is what another follower saw:

When conducting research on Facebook, it’s important to consider that we all have different information networks. Your “normal” may look very different from somebody else’s.

Therefore, you must not allow yourself to have tunnel vision as you do your research.

Be aware, be able to step outside your own experience — this is what’s important if you are studying disinformation today. 

This isn’t just useful for research. In a public health crisis, it’s important to know if the people in your town are behaving dangerously or else spreading dangerous rumors and hoaxes online — and to take necessary precautions. 

The Other Side Also Has Fakes!

This is not at all to say that my social media feeds do not contain disinformation and misinformation. 

Consider the fact that fakes about religious fundamentalists have also sprung up as the internet continues to react to the pandemic. 

Televangelist Pat Robertson, for example, was recently quoted as saying that oral sex was the real cause of COVID-19. Snopes traced that back to a website that appears to traffic in satire and/or false information

Yet a viral tweet about Pat Robertson’s alleged statement is still up, making no mention of the original source of the comments:

(Here is the original tweet, and the archived version, in case it gets deleted, is here)

Scroll down through the top responses, and you will see that the majority of the people responding have no idea that they’ve been fooled. In fact, it’s possible that the author of the tweet is similarly in the dark. 

Alyssa Milano, who has 3.6 million Twitter followers as of the writing of this article, quote-tweeted the viral tweet, and, as of the writing of this article, her quote tweet is still up:

Having originally noticed the viral tweet myself, I noticed that there was no attribution as to the source of the quote. 

I also noticed that Robertson was being “quoted” while using informal transliteration of speech— so, “young uns” instead of the “young ones” that would have been standard news speak. 

Brushing up on standard news speak, incidentally, is often a good way to spot satire and fakes. You can do that by simply reading a handful of short news articles per day, noting the language conventions.

After encountering the viral tweet, I quickly did some digging and realized that the story was like a satire genie that had escaped its bottle. 

This is a classic example of how past statements and events can help shape and accelerate the spread of fakes. Robertson has a history of making bizarre, controversial statements about tragic world events and helping amplify such statements

Therefore, without some research, it’s very easy to believe that he made a similar comment about the current pandemic. 

What’s interesting about the hoax website that originally published the Pat Robertson story, is that it calls itself “The Business Standard News.” Plug that into Google, and the first result for you will likely be a respectable Indian newspaper with pretty regular seeming output, or so was the case for me:

So even if the author of the virat tweet about Robertson had quoted the source as the Business Standard News — it wouldn’t have necessarily rung any alarm bells!

You might be thinking, “Why is this a big deal? It was just a bit of satire that people fell for — where is the harm?”

The problem is, you can’t apply double standards to disinformation and misinformation. If you’re horrified by people spreading hysteria that can cost lives in the middle of a pandemic — you can’t give them ammunition to do so. 

In other words, if you don’t want your grandmother to send articles to her quilting appreciation group about how we must halt vaccine research because it is Satanic, you can’t turn around and retweet a fake story about Pat Robertson blaming “ladies’ private parts” for the pandemic. 

Or, at the very least, undo the retweet, and tell your followers that you’ve been had. 

We all hate eating crow, but sometimes, it is necessary.

Where Do We Go From Here?

A pandemic is a time of anxiety, and anxiety is the perfect breeding ground for fakes, hoaxes, rumors, and lies. 

While social media greatly amplifies false information and speeds up its spread, in many ways, this phenomenon has always been with us. Remember that time European Jews were blamed for the Black Death, for example?

Having a sense of perspective is important in a time like this. As is the understanding that many people spread lies completely unwittingly. 

Any long-term solutions to the spread of false information online must factor in intent — most people pushing this stuff aren’t evil masterminds. This is especially true of religious communities where literally communing with one another is a big aspect of life to begin with. People geta bit of “news” about how “aborted babies” will be used in a COVID-19 vaccine and feel it is their spiritual duty to share it.

By ascribing these people the role of evil masterminds, we lend the lies and hoaxes that much more power. 

What matters more in times like these is simply shining a light on what is happening. This is why I look forward to hearing from those of you who are plugged into these networks — what patterns have you noticed? What conclusions have you drawn?

Let me know in the comments below, and stay healthy and safe in the meantime. 

Natalia Antonova

Natalia Antonova is the editor of Bellingcat. She is also a writer and researcher, interested in Russia, religion, disinformation, and various adjacent topics. Her writing has appeared in the Guardian, the Washington Post, Vox, Strange Horizons, Newsweek, n+1, et al. She does not wish to argue with you about the capitalization of the word "oblast" (OF COURSE it's not capitalized).

Join the Bellingcat Mailing List:

Enter your email address to receive a weekly digest of Bellingcat posts, links to open source research articles, and more.

35 Comments

  1. Nathan B.

    Thanks for your clear reporting here. And for acknowledging that disfo appears to be coming from supposedly different ideologies.

    My social media circle is afire with disfo around Covid now. I feel caught in the middle. The idea that a billionaire would give a fortune to charity to somehow make more money (or commit genocide) makes zero sense to me. The hate is asinine. From my perspective in Canada it looks like North America is currently in the midst of an online civil war. I am worried about hot escalation.

    Reply
  2. Adrian

    The very first example the author quotes is either a deliberate distortion, or an appalling lack of elementary logic displayed by the author.

    The bishops only meant that searching for the cure of one human by killing another is immoral.

    As immoral as Dr. Mengele’s doing experiments on Jews (and killing them in process) in order to advance the medical knowledge and save lives of German.

    I guess, this erroneous thinking on part of the author is due to a lack of elementary knowledge and dogmatic belief in a (self-identified) “progressive” dogma that a child in the womb is “a part of woman”. Which is a scientific nonsense – as a woman cannot be a single human organism with two sets of DNA, two heads (one one her neck and one in her womb, and part of one organism’s body cannot be managed by one brain, and another part by another one.
    (And movements of baby are directed by baby’s brain, not by woman’s, whose “part” it is, according to baseless beliefs of the self-identified “progressives”, who in reality are anti science nincompoops).

    Reply
    • Donald

      The presupposition is that it happened. No vaccine was made that way or will be. It is if I said, “Adrian, you need to stop beating your wife.”

      Reply
      • Ricky

        Donald, vaccines were ABSOLUTELY made from aborted fetal tissue. Several peer-review articles about it are available online. Our child’s pediatrician even affirmed it but explained that the fetus was from an abortion in the 60s, like that would make it better.

        Reply
        • J. K.

          Some vaccines are really made with cells descendant from fetal tissue taken many years ago. But what is the ethical trouble? The fetus was not harmed by this process nor by its preparation – fetuses unfortunately die from many natural causes (without human interference and without being baptised!). No “killing of a human” involved.

          I find it very immoral to reject vaccination because of hoaxes being spread online about killing fetuses for making vaccines. Because the other option is spreading of diseases, many of which are deadly (also to fetuses).

          Reply
    • J. K.

      “a woman cannot be a single human organism with two sets of DNA” … in fact, some people are, and most of these do not learn about it their whole life.

      But back to the fundamental questions you may wish to ask: When starts a human living and having human rights? Is it a gradual proces of development in utero, or is it a single moment, like, e.g., birth, start of baby’s brain activity (as you note), or first heartbeat, first cell splitting or the very moment of conception (as taken for granted by most churches)? Or should even sperms and ova have their own haploid rights and if so, how to make (literally!) quadrillions of sperms not die fruitlessly every day?

      But does a particular choice have any background other than mere arbitrary agreement of people (be it either public opinion or church concil)? Can we then judge that some approach is an “erroneus dogma”, whereas some other choice is the only correct one?

      Reply
    • Samson Smith

      I mean the left leaning disinformation that I see coming from this site is no surprise… I don’t need the internet to find my evidence for things…. I have known for years thru people who work in Africa on the ground that Gates introduced Vaccines in the early 2000’s and it has lead to 1000’s of cases of infertility… disease has increase since he convinced then that this “wellness needle” would take away all their sickness…. There are factual scientific reasons to be highly suspect of Gates and his motivations… follow the money…. Why is he so heavily invested in the Chinese Wuhan lab…. I could be writing for hours about activity that doesn’t add up to the narrative being pushed by the progressives about Gates… climate change extremists are another example of poor science or doctored science data, as was proved in Supreme Court in August, 2019 when the ruling was handed down against Michael Mann for not providing data he used to develop projections through his “curve” model that the UN currently bases everything in this area on…. I am sceptical …. So I follow the money and the science…. The main news is 70-80 percent propaganda…. Very much disinformation!

      Reply
      • Beelzebub

        > “ I mean the left leaning disinformation that I see coming from this site is no surprise… “

        Can you point to the ‘left leaning disinformation’ and source why it in fact is disinformation?

        About your Gates claims:
        – what ‘narrative’ is ‘being pushed’ about Gates, according to you?
        – what verifiable sources do you have for “1000’s of cases of infertility…” in ‘Africa’ and ‘disease has increase’, both supposedly as a result of Vaccination introduced by Gates?

        About the Michael Mann case, the data of his research was never in question. He sued Ball for defamation. Here’s an excerpt of the Judges ruling:

        -quotes-
        ___ Justice Skolrood found that “… despite Dr. Ball’s history as an academic and a scientist, the Article is rife with errors and inaccuracies, which suggests a lack of attention to detail on Dr. Ball’s part, if not an indifference to the truth.” The judge further accepted that Ball was committed to damaging Weaver’s reputation. Justice Skolrood wrote: “These allegations are directed at Dr. Weaver’s professional competence and are clearly derogatory of him. Indeed, it is quite apparent that this was Dr. Ball’s intent.”

        “The Article is poorly written and does not advance credible arguments in favour of Dr. Ball’s theory about the corruption of climate science. Simply put, a reasonably thoughtful and informed person who reads the Article is unlikely to place any stock in Dr. Ball’s views, including his views of Dr. Weaver as a supporter of conventional climate science.”

        “Fair comment,” for example, would require an affirmative answer to the question: “could anyone honestly express that opinion on the proved facts?” In this case, Justice Skolrood said, no.

        “While Dr. Ball presents his central thesis that climate science has been corrupted by politics, the Article offers little in the way of support for that thesis, apart from vague references to missing or falsified data and political manipulation, unsubstantiated and erroneous references ….”

        So, unable to claim conventional defences, Ball’s lawyer, Michael Scherr, went for something novel. Having admitted that his client was guilty of defamation, Scherr demanded that Weaver should have to prove that the defamatory comments actually caused damage. ___
        -end quotes-

        1. There was no question about the veracity of the data or models, the case was about defamation
        2. The judge ruled that: “could anyone honestly express that opinion on the proved facts?” In this case, Justice Skolrood said, no. The proved facts here being: climate science/climate change
        3. Ball ADMITTED that he was in fact guilty of defamation, but relied on the previous point: That no on in their right mind would honestly refute proved facts (the models/data sets that science deniers have claimed to be proven wrong by this case).

        If you make such grave accusations, you need to provide sources. Especially when you are touting things like:

        > “”” I am sceptical …. […] The main news is 70-80 percent propaganda…. Very much disinformation “””

        Looking forward to your response

        Reply
  3. Stephen Ward

    Your article reads more like an extension of the acknowledged operation Mockingbird standard response.

    You know 5G is the cause of it.

    You know the truth on 5G, on Bill Gates and his fake vaccines.

    You are held responsible for all the people who will die after they have the injection.

    You, the fake media are held accountable for the mass sterilisation of young girls.

    You the fake media are held accountable for the coming plague on humanity.

    Do independent research, oh you can’t, you’re owned.

    Reply
    • Dario

      Only because you like to believe in something, this doesn’t mean you have to offend others.
      But what you wrote is too ridiculous to be taken as a proper opinion, fortunately.

      Reply
    • Salem Kyuder

      Please don’t hate or slander him. He’s not a bad guy. Just pretty misguided on some of his opinions like using religious themed opinions as a coping mechanism/catalyst from his mother’s death in 2016

      Reply
      • Salem Kyuder

        With his political opinions being jaded through “draconian methods” for diversity and tolerance, European governments “betraying” their people and civil liberties for migrants and refugees from “incompatable countries”, and not liking open borders.

        Reply
  4. Christine Sedders

    Good to see someone representing the interests of the outliers of ‘normal’ society. You say you are not here to argue with anyone – does this make you a little self opinionated? If I presented you with some facts and truths would you let it influence you – I don’t believe you would.

    Reply
    • Beelzebub

      Hi Christine,

      Could you share some of those facts and truths? I am always open to changing my mind when presented with a compelling argument. Please include sources as to enable me to asses the merit of your case for myself.

      Cheers,

      Reply
  5. MJ

    If you were going to report on a topic like this, wouldn’t you first research whether what is being said is true or not? I would have looked for information on how a specific vaccine was developed. You already know that any subject has adherents on both the left and the right that mouth off all over social media.

    Reply
  6. Peter May

    A reflection on the recent measles epidemic in Samoa. Vaccinated dead = 0; Unvaccinated dead = 83. Interpret this any way you wish

    Reply
    • J. K.

      Would you please share also some statistics of how many people were vaccinated there?

      Reply
      • Peter May

        Hi there – my shaky computer skills mean I cant attach; BUT if you Google “Samoa measles epidemic” you will get all the information. Cheers

        Reply
  7. John Edwards

    Now that day by day evidente is increasing all over the internet that your research only scratched the surface and that you are misled in every possible way the best thing you could do is start digging just a little deeper. Stop looking the other way. Admit the TRUTH. To whom it may concern. J.E.

    Reply
    • J. K.

      Except a vague expression of nonagreement, you basically did not convey any information. Can you please point out what statement you consider wrong, and what source should be studied to get closer to the so called TRUTH?

      Reply
  8. John Edwards

    The remark with regard to measles vaccine is correct, because this is non mutating. As soon as a virus is of a mutating type vaccines are useless, because they are always to late. As happend in The Nerherlands 2014/2015 Almost 4 times more dead than we have now with COVID-19. The vaccines weer complete useless and because people than did not need those the whole lot was sold for peanuts to Rumania and Bulgaria. And when these were received overthere the flu epidemic was over. Officially stated by Dutch Health Care officials. J.E.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)

You can support the work of Bellingcat by donating through the following link:

TRUST IN JOURNALISM - IMPRESS