A week is a long time in social media

These days social media is seething with COVID related disinformation and misinformation. The last week however brought out the best of the worst in those intent on denying reality.

Without a doubt last weekend’s protests in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane left some as excited as a lonely school kid might get after their first school dance in long pants. That does not explain the nonsense that followed however. That comes down to the antivaxxer, COVID conspiracy theorist trait of seizing a splinter of fact and presenting it in a way to support a broader deceit. The week’s carry on was unique for a couple of reasons. Firstly only a meagre understanding of the subject matter was needed to grasp the reality. Also corrections and clarifications were available in almost real time.

NSW, COVID-19 and Vaccination

When it comes to grasping the situation with Australia’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, things are simple: it’s well behind schedule. More to the point, the delay in shipping Pfizer vaccine has been a constant hum in our news cycle for months. This has been amplified by confusion around advice from the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation, which has seen changes in the recommended age groups for receipt of the AstraZeneca vaccine. In six weeks over June-July it changed from 50 years and above to 60 and above. ATAGI advice held firm when Scott Morrison suggested all Australians should consult their GP to consider getting it, then ultimately the age was lowered to 18 years and above in view of the raging Delta variant in Sydney.

There was the backlash over an 11 July COVID-19 advertisement which carried the text, “Covid-19 can affect anyone… Book your vaccination”. The woman featured in the ad’ was in the age group for which Pfizer vaccine was recommended. But supply wasn’t there. Last Friday NSW health minister Brad Hazard made a plea to other states for Pfizer vaccines. He was left disappointed. The point to this brief and tedious history lesson is that a meagre (that word again) attention span is enough to grasp that NSW is in serious need of COVID-19 vaccines. Until last Saturday that had to be Pfizer for under 60s. Additionally, the impact of COVID-19 vaccination in keeping people out of intensive care has been making news across the developed world. When NSW Health gave updates on COVID-19 hospitalisations during press conferences we quickly learnt the same success is evident here.

When Dr. Jeremy McAnulty misspoke

As we moved into last weekend a trend of sorts emerged as senior NSW Health physician Dr. Jeremy McAnulty presented his reports. On 22 July the seriousness of the Delta variant was underscored by the fact that of 118 in hospital, 28 were in ICU of whom 14 were ventilated. He reported that forty two were under 55 years of age and fifteen were under 35. On 24 July Dr. McAnulty reported that 139 people were in hospital. There were fifty five patients under 55 years of age and twenty eight who were under 35. He noted that of 37 patients in ICU, 17 required ventilation, 36 were unvaccinated and one patient had received one dose of AstraZeneca. It was a disturbing trend. Young Australians were being hit hard by the Delta variant and hospitalised in increasing numbers. In the intensive care unit nobody was fully vaccinated. One person was partially vaccinated.

This was what we had feared may come of a slow vaccine rollout. Without the protection of vaccination COVID-19 was making adults of all ages very ill indeed. On 25 July Dr. McAnulty had the awful task of announcing two COVID related deaths. A woman in her late thirties, and another in her seventys had died. One could see the softly spoken public health expert struggle over the words. He moved on to report 141 people were in hospital of whom 43 were in ICU, with 18 requiring ventilation. Continuing with the same data sets of previous press conferences he reported that sixty of those hospitalised are under 55 and twenty eight are under 35. He noted that of the 43 in intensive care one was in their teens, seven were in their 20s, three in their 30s, fourteen were in the 50s, twelve were in their 60s and six were in their 70s.

At this point viewers keeping track of the new disturbing trend knew what was coming. Dr. McAnulty will report on the vaccinated status of those in ICU. Which he did. However he misspoke and said, “All but one are vaccinated, one has received just one dose of vaccine”. It was however clear what was meant: all but one are unvaccinated. The ICU patient numbers had increased by six and there had been two deaths. Even for viewers not catching sequential daily updates (I know I wasn’t), it was clear this was a slip of the tongue. As outlined above, Australia has had a sluggish vaccine rollout. On that day only 15.8% of NSW residents were fully vaccinated. Being vaccinated was not the norm and certainly not for Aussies under 60. Yet it wasn’t until journalists were asking questions around half an hour later, that Dr. McAnulty was able to correct himself.

Here’s the two relevant clips run together.

By then no doubt anti-vaccine activists had edited out the few seconds they needed and gleefully hit social media. Taylor Winterstein who makes a living from bad influencing on Instagram posted this the next day.

You might have noticed how she struggles with numbers. Dr. McAnulty was referring to forty three people in intensive care when he misspoke. Not 141. This same mistake is repeated elsewhere in the antivax rabbit hole. As is the response that his correction was false. Either bogus or doctored or whatever they can grab to avoid the facts. No surprise there. Although there was one surprise. Del Bigtree was swift to tweet the video with a message to see the point where Jeremy McAnulty misspoke, proclaiming that, “all were vaccinated but one”. The reality was pointed out to him. An hour later his first tweet was deleted and he tweeted a correction acknowledging his mistake. “Since he made a correction I must too”, Bigtree offered.

This is reasonably significant in light of the fact Del Bigtree is responsible for a copious amount of disinformation and misinformation regarding both vaccines and COVID-19. He is firmly convinced COVID-19 vaccines are ineffective or worse. Credit where it’s due however. After all, Dr. Dan Wilson of Debunk the Funk is a former conspiracy theorist. The same credit can’t be given to Del’s Twitter followers. Most reacted like the proverbial End of World cult faced with a world that didn’t end. Their justifications covered all bases including denial and even transforming a correction into a retraction! Then there was that darn antivaxxer problem with the number 141.

This scene was played out in social media rabbit holes everywhere. Replies to Taylor Winterstein were equally stupid. Which is an achievement as Winterstein controls who can comment on her Instagram account. Fact checking followed. AAP published a review of the fake claim, an analysis and supporting evidence of COVID-19 vaccine effectiveness. CoronaCheck included it in their weekly update and AFP Fact Check published a comprehensive slap-down of numerous misleading sources. Nonetheless such calculated disinformation has the potential to harm Australian public health and even cost lives.

When it comes to pumping up disinformation like this, it’s always hard to pass by Meryl Dorey, founder of the Australian Vaccination-risks Network. She too had trouble with the 141 number and even re-employed Dr. McAnulty as a “politician”. Dorey also claims COVID hospitalisations and deaths globally and specifically Israel, the USA and Europe are fully vaccinated. That’s another version of the carefully crafted mistake seen courtesy of Alan Jones and Craig Kelly who failed to grasp a statistical reality, and were splendidly refuted by Paul Barry on Media Watch. It is an example of base rate bias or base rate fallacy. This video explains it very well.

You can grab the mp3 here or listen below.

The CDC announcement about COVID-19 PCR testing

A look back at this week isn’t complete without highlighting the COVID PCR kerfuffle. On 21 July the CDC alerted laboratories that they would retire-with-a-gold-watch the CDC 2019-Novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) Real-Time RT-PCR Diagnostic Panel. What most of us know as the COVID-19 PCR test. Polymerase Chain Reaction testing is highly accurate. The process identifies the genetic material of a specific virus. It does this in a way that is similar to providing a yes or no answer to the presence of X virus. It cannot give a this or that answer to the presence of X, Y or Z viruses.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic the anti-science conspiracy lobby has pushed two absurd claims about the detection of COVID-19. The first is that it has never been isolated. False. The second is that the PCR test is so fantastically unreliable that it produces only false positives. False. What’s interesting about these claims is that if one believes the first, then the second is true no matter what test is used. This however didn’t stop COVID-19 deniers from trying to discredit the technology of the test as a means to more or less blame it for positive results they didn’t like hearing about.

Because of the closed nature of the PCR test, further resources and expense are needed to test for other viruses. This is ultimately why the CDC want to discontinue the PCR test at the end of 2021. This is done by removing its request for emergency use authorisation for the test from the FDA. The CDC still support the accuracy of the test. However by encouraging the use of multiplex tests single samples can be tested for a variety of viruses. For example influenza A, B and COVID-19.

Echoes from social media rabbit holes erupted. The claim was that the CDC withdrew support for the COVID-19 PCR test because it couldn’t distinguish between influenza and COVID-19. This then, and not closed international borders was why influenza cases had dropped dramatically. Links to the CDC alert were published with pride. Concepts of vindication were liberally mixed in with this sudden inability to read. G&B Lawyers’ conspiracy theorist Nathan Andrew Buckley made the news. Ali Haydar, Will Connolly (aka ‘Eggboy’) and Reignite Democracy Australia featured amongst many to spread falsehood. AAP published another great takedown and analysis. FactCheck have a particularly comprehensive SciCheck article on this. CoronaCheck included a debunking in the same piece that debunked the abuse of Jeremy McAnulty’s slip.

“There’s a little bit of misinformation going around”

I’m perhaps pressing my luck with the Fixated Persons Unit, but I’d like to share some vintage Meryl Dorey Gish Galloping about the CDC’s recent PCR alert. Delightfully she kicks off by warning that, “There’s a little bit of misinformation going around”. Well I hadn’t noticed, so I’ll be on the lookout. At one point Dorey fancies herself as a lab technician telling her audience, “Because we are using a cycle rate of forty to forty five, every single positive is a false positive”.

There’s an mp3 here for your collection, or you can use the player below.

Conclusion

The COVID conspiracy, anti-vaccination activist movement that thrives on social media continues to deceive. The last week saw two fresh examples of disinformation. One of which callously exploited an obvious error, corrected shortly thereafter, during a NSW Health press conference.

Please get vaccinated. It can save your life.


References

ATAGI Statement re AstraZeneca – 17 June 2021

ATAGI advice on AstraZeneca remains unchanged – ABC 12 July 2021

ATAGI Statement re AstraZeneca – 24 July 2021

NSW Health press conferences

NSW Health 22 July

NSW Health 24 July

NSW Health 25 July

No, hospitalised COVID-19 patients in NSW aren’t all vaccinated – AAP

Posts mislead on proportion of vaccinated Covid-19 victims in Australian state’s hospitals – AFP Fact Check

Facebook post – Dr. Brytney Cobia tells of dying patients wish to be vaccinated

Israel, 50% of infected are vaccinated, and base rate bias

RMIT ABC Fact Check

Viral Posts Misrepresent CDC Announcement on COVID-19 PCR Test – FactCheck

Wild claims about CDC PCR alert don’t pass the test – AAP

Originally published as A week is a long time in social media disinformation

Latest update: 1 August 2021

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