Latest AVN legal fundraiser to scoop up orphan donors

At the end of June this year I posted on a dubious-looking legal fundraising campaign announced by the Australian Vaccination-risks Network. They were, apparently, proposing private action against Australia’s federal health minister, Greg Hunt, and injunctive relief against the federal government.

It was not surprising to learn they were claiming the COVID-19 vaccine rollout was an experiment and must be stopped. The full 18 June letter to Hunt and Mark Butler MP is here. They had given Greg Hunt seven days to respond, and in the post I included part of their demands:

If you do not respond or if your response once again does not address our concerns, we would feel that we have no option but to consider legal action against you yourself, Minister Hunt, in the form of a private prosecution and against the Government to seek injunctive relief to immediately stop this current experiment on the Australian population…

Hunt, of course, did not respond. Meryl Dorey announced on the eve of day seven that, absent his response, a page would be set up for donations and legal action would proceed. Or rather it would if “our solicitors and lawyers and barristers say we are going to proceed”. What followed was… well, nothing. Or rather, nothing from deep in the AVN bunker. One suspects that this is because other actors, planning legal action against COVID public health initiatives, were drawing significant funds from motivated donors.

The AVN is an anti-vaccine pressure group with a history of dubious legal fundraising schemes. Last year all roads led to funding their Vaxxed bus tour. This has long since ground to a halt, as Meryl Dorey struggles to reinvent herself, yet again, to sell the unsuspecting the same decades old packages of vaccine disinformation. Dorey attracts reasonable numbers to her Facebook videos but this isn’t an income stream. One suspects the AVN is keen for an injection (pun intended) of donor dollars.

Recent failed COVID legal challenges

In June 2020, COVID conspiracy lawyer Nathan Buckley’s popularity grew when he advised Victorians to ignore lockdown directives. Eleven long months before AVN thought to raise money for COVID related legal challenges, Buckley had already suggested up to $10 million would be needed for a High Court challenge against Australia’s lockdowns. He further used the AVN playbook to propose action against flu vaccine legislation and No Jab No Play laws in South Australia. At the end of July 2021 he was still attracting attention in mainstream media.

Nathan Buckley reportedly raised over $575,000 via crowdfunding, to challenge vaccine mandates and public health orders related to COVID-19. An October report suggested he had raised $700,000. Both lawsuits brought before the NSW Supreme Court, targetting NSW health minister Brad Hazzard were dismissed by Justice Robert Beech-Jones on Friday 15 October. Buckley’s bizarre social media posts attacking Justice Beech-Jones and misrepresenting his findings, contributed to his suspension from the NSW Law Society. For the AVN, this meant Buckley’s generous donors were potentially available.

The efforts of Tony Nikolic and Matthew Hopkins of AFL Solicitors have also attracted a great deal of attention and donor dollars. Nikolic targeted Brad Hazzard and Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant. At one point antivaxxers contributed by publishing misrepresentations of evidence given by Kristine Macartney, the director of the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance. The NCIRS published a statement addressing each item in the falsified court transcript. AFL solicitors, who had brought one of the suits, were moved to reject those antivax claims on Telegram.

After these cases had all failed, AFL and G&B joined forces in an attempt to force Australia’s Prime Minister to apologise outside the Polish embassy for “deceiving” Australians. The chosen location for the apology was based on COVID conspiracy theorists belief that “Polish government officials” had protested outside the Australian embassy in Warsaw. In fact the protest was not by government officials but members of a far-right political party, with a history of spreading COVID-19 misinformation and conspiracies. In another case challenging the human rights of vaccine mandates, Marcus Clarke QC representing plaintiffs, unsuccessfully called on Justice Melinda Richards to excuse herself from the trial.

Serene Teffaha of Advocate Me, reportedly raised over $654,000 before her practising certificate was cancelled in April this year. Even after this, her efforts continued to divert funds for vague and futile legal efforts, away from the AVN. Finally, Maatouks Law Group raised close to $100,000 for a NSW class action. At the beginning of September, Cam Wilson’s article in Crikey listed the main players crowdsourcing funds for eventually hopeless legal gambles. He rightly noted it’s not illegal to test the authority of public health restrictions. The text of his article captures the absence of transparency available to donors regarding the quality and integrity of expenditure decisions. There are many other examples, and appeals are still being heard.

This organised, well funded action based upon disinformation and rampant conspiracy theories, stewing on encrypted social media, overly seasoned with offensive personal attacks on anyone who dare think differently, is common. That’s high praise indeed as to free democracy in Australia. A fact that does not resonate with Meryl Dorey’s 20 November opening line to the AVN’s latest legal fundraising blurb. On the pages of Christian fundraising site GiveSendGo [Archive], we read:

Australia is in a tailspin – descending almost inexorably into tyranny.

Orphaned donors an opportunity for the AVN

“Tyranny” has been a well worn word for COVID conspirators during the pandemic. The AVN has given “Medical Tyranny” and “fascism” ample airing, as Dorey urged followers to donate in support of the fight for freedom, and as a reason to attend illegal protests during lockdown. The AVN had frequently promoted the efforts of Buckley, Teffaha, Nikolic and Hopkins. Nikolic had cited AVN antivax material in a long letter to Brad Hazzard. The AVN has watched these fraught legal efforts with scrutiny. Is it cynical to suspect that as legal challenges fell to “fascist medical tyranny”, eyes in the AVN bunker also noticed increasing numbers of ‘orphan’ donors had lost their cause for donation?

The fundraising blurb continues:

We are not able to travel from State to State or overseas, work in our normal jobs – even when those jobs are part of our own business, go out to eat, drink, to the cinema, dance, sing, or do just about anything else without agreeing to take an experimental jab that has already killed hundreds of our countrymen and women and injured over 80,000.

It is obvious to anyone who has observed what’s been happening over the last 22 months that our governments – State and Federal – are determined to remove every right our parents and grandparents fought for in many wars over the last 100 years or so.

We at the Australian Vaccination-risks Network (AVN) have watched this with great dismay, as we know many of you have done as well. We have participated in protests, made submissions, written letters and for the most part, though these actions have put the government and their bureaucracy on notice, their course seems to have been set and unchanged through it all.

Court cases have arisen and been lost – and others are ongoing – we wish them all well. Though we have informed people of these cases and done everything we can to offer whatever assistance we can to the organisers, the AVN has not personally gotten behind any of them.

Until Now.

We recently met with a legal team that has rendered a legal advice that has been reviewed by two eminent Australian and English legal minds, (a former Justice and a current QC), that the case has merit and, if it wins (there is never a guarantee) .. of completely turning the current situation on its head!

The AVN claim to feel so strongly they have donated $20,000 into the “AVN Judicial Review Fund of our instructing solicitors Irish Bentley”. That might sound generous and is intended to motivate donors. Yet we must remember the AVN 2016 High Court challenge against “tyrannical ‘No Jab, No Pay’ federal legislation”. According to their own emails and website, this ultimately left them holding a minimum of $80,000 and possibly close to $110,000. These figures vary because their own published totals of raised funds and apparent legal expenditure both varied significantly. Was $160,000 raised or $152,000? Was expenditure around $70,000 or was it $50,000? This disparity remains online and has never been explained.

At the time, donors raised concerns and sought clarification, to no avail.

  • donors challenge meryl dorey over missing funds
  • donors challenge meryl dorey over missing funds
  • donors challenge meryl dorey over missing funds

Money from this remaining kitty that the AVN might claim was spent on antivax pursuits, distills into two efforts. In February 2019 the AVN advised members they had donated $5,000 USD to ecologist James Lyons-Weiler, to help fund his crowdsourced “Vaxxed vs unvaxxed” study. Published in the International Journal of Research and Public Health, it was quickly demolished [2] by critics of the new and dubious methodology. The study was retracted in August this year. In March this year the AVN advised that £4,000 was apparently donated to Professor Christopher Exley of Keele University in the UK. This was to assist his work into linking aluminium to neurodegenerative diseases, including the long debunked “vaccine-autism” trope. That money supposedly vanished in the midst of controversy that saw Exley leave Keele University in August this year.

The fundraising blurb attempts to justify their position in defending all Australians, whether vaccinated or not. It’s about freedom and slavery, no less.

Now is the time for ALL freedom-loving people – those who have taken the jab and those who have not; those who are staring down unemployment and those who are still able to work; those who want to protect their children and grandchildren and those who simply believe that the government’s rights stop at our skin – to pull together as one.

Whether you are able to donate $5 or $5,000, we need you now! And if you have no money to give to this cause, we need you to share this with everyone you possibly can – both here in Australia and overseas.

What we do here and now can have wide-ranging and positive influences on the entire world. There are more of us who believe in freedom than there are those who want to enslave us.

Cleaning Up Their Act

What’s notably different about this fundraising attempt is that the AVN have provided terms and conditions. They actually name real solicitors and refer to a trust account. It’s now clear to those who read the terms that the AVN is not a charity. That last point is a hard learned lesson that previously cost them significant funds. The 2016 High Court challenge ceased abruptly and the reason, is something the AVN has tried to keep secret. After announcing $160,000 had been raised, and that double that was needed, the AVN suddenly went silent. Three and a half months later, on Christmas day, they quietly revealed by email that, “counsel has advised us not to proceed due to the poor chance of success and the high costs of a High Court challenge”.

That was not accurate. What had actually happened was the AVN (then ‘Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network’) were advised of an upcoming NSW Fair Trading investigation into the fundraiser. The Australian reported the facts two days after the AVN had formally ceased fundraising. An August 2018 letter from Fair Trading, eventually advised then-AVN president Tasha David of the outcome. Essentially, the High Court fundraiser had indeed broken the law, but the AVN would not be prosecuted.

It included:

The Inquiry has found AVsN’s representations as to the money solicited on its website, and received by it, include a charitable purpose in that it purports to be for the promotion of education and learning. A copy of s. 9 of the Act is attached. […]

On this occasion NSW Fair Trading does not intend to initiate legal proceedings. However, AVsN must immediately cease the conducting of unlawful fundraising. If AVsN fails to comply, a further investigation may be conducted. If a future investigation finds that AVsN is continuing to conduct fundraising unlawfully, Fair Trading will consider appropriate enforcement action.

NSW Fair Trading investigations are bound by the limits of the Charitable Fundraising Act 1991. In simple terms that means they can act if non charities, such as the AVN, appear to be raising funds for a charitable purpose. By stating now that they are not a charity, the AVN hope to avoid accusations of unlawful fundraising and the promised “enforcement action”. Naming their solicitors, as opposed to previously alluding to anonymous representation, is something they had to do. For almost two years now, proposed crowdsourced legal action against public health directives and COVID-19 vaccination, has had names and faces. The AVN pre-COVID claim of needing secrecy to avoid revealing their strategy to the government and “the pharmaceutical lobby”, will no longer work.

I suspect that now having actual solicitors whose professional reputation is involved, means that a trust account has been strongly recommended. Legally, as the AVN is not a charity, the Charitable Trusts Act 1993 does not apply. In 2016 donors were asked to identify payments with the initials “NJNP”. All routes of deposit led to a long standing Westpac “AVN Community Solutions” account. There simply was no dedicated bank account, and if donors did not initial cheques, money orders or PayPal donations, the AVN advised, the money would be assumed to be not for the High court challenge and used as they saw fit. It may not be essential to provide a dedicated account for funds raised, but it is sound practice and the AVN have learned not only from their own mistakes and critics, but quite likely from recent critics of Serene Teffaha.

The Terms and conditions are as follows:

The goal is $300,000. Total to date since 20 November, is $123,040. Two realities have emerged with respect to recent legal challenges of this nature. The chance of success is unlikely in the extreme. The chance of significant profit is high. Item 10 in the terms and conditions allows the AVN to spend donor monies on what they may deem related administrative costs. Item 11 states that only donors who contribute over $500 “may elect” to receive a pro rata return from surplus funds, if over $5,000 is left.

If at the completion or cessation (for whatever reason) of the proceedings (which may include appellate proceedings) there are monies exceeding AU$5,000 remaining in the AVN Judicial Review Fund (i.e. surplus funds), donors who have contributed an amount greater than $500 may elect to receive a pro rata return from the surplus funds (i.e. their total donation as a proportion of the total funds raised). Any funds remaining after such pro rata return will be paid to AVN.

One awaits further developments with interest.


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Latest update: 4 December 2021

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Monica Smit ABC interview: inaccurate, harmful, offensive say Audience and Consumer Affairs

Following a complaint to the ABC in the wake of a 12 August interview with the founder of Reignite Democracy Australia, Monica Smit, Audience and Consumer Affairs concluded that it was a “serious editorial misjudgement”.

They found that ABC Far North Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy, harm and offence. A correction has been published and, after the finding is reported to the ABC board, it will be published under upheld complaints.

A post here on 18 August, examined in depth a series of bogus claims made by Smit (pictured), and touched on the importance of editorial accuracy. On 13 August I’d submitted a complaint to the ABC summarising the most significant points made in that post.

As mentioned in the post under Editorial Standards?, after the interview, presenter Adam Stephens did clearly outline his reasons for having Smit on. He thought it is interesting people hold such views and that, as evidenced by RDA pamphlet drops, some residents around Cairns had been swayed by Smit.

He also added:

Whether you wanted to hear from Monica or not there are people that are listening to her message, and sometimes it’s… I think worthwhile in actually learning about the motivations of some of these groups in our community, and some of the people that feel strongly enough to actually join groups like this and distribute their information.

This sounds reasonable, but the problem is that Smit is a skilled manipulator. She is well versed in faux justifications for anti-vaccine, anti-mask and anti-lockdown claims. The RDA site leaves no doubt that they present harmful and divisive claims backed up by legal loopholes and the misrepresentation of studies. At the time, Smit had already incited a number of illegal protests. It was clear she had no regard for community safety. It is a factor that ABC management should have proactively made clear to programme producers across the country.

In an ideal world, disinformation would be refuted on the spot. In reality, because Smit (and others like her) cover such a range of topics, and use obscure details, this is impossible. The answer is to never provide air time. A decade ago, anti-vaccination activist Meryl Dorey was given ABC air time to discuss an immunisation incentive. She used both opportunities to spread disinformation. Complaints were upheld and Dorey hasn’t been on the ABC since. Let’s hope a similar fate awaits Smit.

The correction published by the ABC is as follows:

ABC Far North: On 12 August, ABC Local Radio Far North Drive interviewed a member of anti-lockdown and COVID-19 conspiracy group Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). The program failed to explain that the interviewee had no medical or pandemic expertise; and that the group is anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and encourages illegal lockdown protests. This context was material to the audience’s understanding of the issues to hand. During the interview it was stated that mask wearing is dangerous; this is inaccurate. The interviewee made repeated erroneous claims about important public health matters which were not adequately contextualised or corrected by the presenter. The program failed to take the opportunity after the interview to directly correct and debunk the claims made.

ABC’s editorial standards are covered in the Code of Practice. Ultimately, Audience and Consumer Affairs found that the interview breached the ABC standards for accuracy 2.1 and 2.2, and for harm and offence 7.1 and 7.6. The full email response from Audience and Consumer Affairs is below (with permission of ABC).

Dear Mr Gallagher

Thank you for your email regarding the 12 August edition of ABC Far North’s Drive with Adam Stephen, which featured an interview with Monica Smit of Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). I apologise for the delay in responding.

Your complaint has been considered by Audience and Consumer Affairs, a unit which is separate to and independent of content making areas within the ABC. Our role is to review and, where appropriate, investigate complaints alleging that ABC content has breached the ABC’s editorial standards, which are explained in our Code of Practice. We have carefully considered your complaint, sought information from ABC Regional management and assessed the content against the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy and harm and offence

Drive has explained that local Cairns businesses had received flyers from RDA, and that they broadcast an interview with a business owner who expressed his frustration with the “irresponsible” behaviour of this group which would “put everyone else in danger”. Following this, the editorial decision was made to interview Monica Smit from RDA.

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that within the context presented, this interview was a serious editorial misjudgement. Our findings are set out below against the relevant editorial standards.

Accuracy

2.1 Make reasonable efforts to ensure that material facts are accurate and presented in context.

2.2 Do not present factual content in a way that will materially mislead the audience. In some cases, this may require appropriate labels or other explanatory information.

As you explain, at no point was it made clear that Monica Smit and RDA have no medical or pandemic expertise, nor are they advised by medical experts. It was not made clear that their flyer and website provides no reputable or evidence-based information. Further, it was not explained that RDA is an anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination activist group which attends, supports and encourages illegal lockdown protests and other activities. This context was material to the audience’s understanding of the issues to hand and in particular to the credibility of the claims made by Monica Smit.

As you point out, Monica Smit made numerous inaccurate and unsupported statements in this interview which were not corrected or adequately challenged by the presenter. The claims made by Monica Smit regarding mask wearing and lockdowns were both alarming and erroneous. The interviewee was allowed to make repeated inaccurate claims about important public health matters which were not adequately contextualised or corrected. Further, the program failed to take the opportunity after the interview to directly correct and debunk the claims made.

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for accuracy 2.1 and 2.2.

Harm and offence

7.1 Content that is likely to cause harm or offence must be justified by the editorial context.

7.6 Where there is editorial justification for content which may lead to dangerous imitation or exacerbate serious threats to individual or public health, safety or welfare, take appropriate steps to mitigate those risks, particularly by taking care with how content is expressed or presented.

Audience and Consumer Affairs observe that reliance by listeners on the information provided by Monica Smit during this interview about public health orders was likely to cause harm. This includes the inaccurate information about mask wearing, lock downs and comments made by the interviewee on how to breach / avoid health orders.

The likely harm was not justified by the editorial context. Issues around groups like RDA are newsworthy to a degree, usually because of the threat or harm they present to the wider community and their illegal activities. An interview with a fringe activist with no medical expertise talking about public health matters requires very solid context and rigorous debunking; that did not happen on this occasion.  

The material propagated by Monica Smit in this interview put RDA followers and the people around them at risk, and the editorial context did not justify the likely harm. The program did not take adequate care with how this content was expressed or presented, particularly in relation to accuracy. 

Audience and Consumer Affairs have concluded that Drive breached the ABC’s editorial standards for harm and offence 7.1 and 7.6.

ABC Regional apologise for this serious lapse in editorial standards. This matter has been discussed with the program team and a correction published here. In keeping with Audience and Consumer Affairs’ usual processes, this finding will be reported to the ABC Board and a summary published here

Thank you again for bringing your concerns to the attention of the ABC. Once again I apologise for the delay in responding. Should you be dissatisfied with this response, you may be able to pursue your complaint with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (www.acma.gov.au).

Yours sincerely
(redacted)
Investigations Manager
Audience and Consumer Affairs


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Chiropractor Simon Floreani Suspended: Lessons Learned

Fundamentalist chiropractor and career anti-vaccination activist Simon Floreani, was last week suspended from practice for six months, from 18 October 2021.

The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) handed down the ruling [Archived] after Floreani was referred by the Chiropractic Board of Australia (the Board) in March 2019, for professional misconduct. In November 2016 Floreani featured in a video podcast interview titled Nazi Vaccination Regime in Australia. In December 2016 Floreani facilitated the screening of Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccine film Vaxxed: From Cover-Up to Catastrophe at his chiropractic clinic. Not surprisingly the film’s thoroughly debunked theme and content are, “contrary to the Chiropractic Board of Australia’s codes and statements”.

Floreani was initially suspended on 27 September 2017, after an Immediate Action Committee (IAC) was convened. The transcript informs [item 5]:

The IAC made that decision on the basis it formed the reasonable belief that action was necessary because Dr Floreani posed a serious risk to persons and it was necessary for it to take immediate action to protect public health and safety.

That suspension lasted around six weeks as it was stayed by the VCAT. Conditions were imposed in March 2018 [item 142], and have applied since then. The Tribunal accepts Floreani has complied with them. The matter had returned to the Tribunal, “because the Board decided it was appropriate to refer Dr Floreani so the Tribunal could consider making disciplinary determinations.” [item 8].

The conditions, designed to limit Floreani’s anti-vaccination influence when he returns to practise, will be in place for twelve months. These include a ban on anti-vaccination signage, materials, advice to practice clientele, and “public comment discouraging vaccination”. If asked about vaccination by a client, Floreani must refer them to an appropriate practitioner. These are an effective continuation of conditions imposed by VCAT in 2018 and “there is no dispute Dr Floreani has complied with them in full at all times”. There is another pre-existing condition (noted item 178) that will also continue. Floreani must display the following sign in all waiting areas.

Please be advised Dr Simon Floreani does not provide any patient with advice regarding vaccination. Any patient requesting such advice will be referred to an appropriately qualified medical practitioner

He must permit the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency (AHPRA) access to waiting areas during business hours, to monitor compliance with signage. Floreani must also submit to practice inspections during which AHPRA may access appointment diaries, booking schedules and any social media accounts used in conducting his business. AHPRA will provide a minimum of 24 hours notice before these inspections, and not conduct them more frequently than once per calendar month. Despite this, they are referred to as “random practice inspections”.

One reads:

The respondent must bear his own costs of complying with the above conditions.

The videoed interview Nazi Vaccination Regime in Australia was with US based anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist and chiropractor Billy DeMoss. During the 3 November 2016 interview Floreani suggested that “they” are trying to silence screening of Vaxxed in Victoria and because people “have to have secret screenings”, it was “a nanny state”. He went on to make some extraordinary statements such as:

…we could not find one shred of evidence to show the efficacy of childhood vaccination […]

I’m, under my regulation and registration requirements, not allowed to talk about vaccination. But under the laws of this country I have to do what’s right… I have to tell people the truth, as a health practitioner, as a leader, as a father, as a community member […]

…parents are trusting their gut and saying, “I don’t want to do this. I can’t inject this poison in my baby’s body and be okay with that” […]

…the evidence is not there to suggest that people are safe and our kids are safe

Prior to 10 December 2016, Floreani was contacted by then president of the anti-vaccine pressure group, Australian Vaccination-risks Network (AVN)*, Tasha David. She requested he screen the film Vaxxed at his clinic. Floreani and his wife, anti-vaccine author and chiropractor, Jennifer Barham-Floreani are past professional members of the AVN. The screening at his clinic was one of a number the AVN had organised at the time. The event was covered in depth, including a video of the entire evening, by reasonable hank. Glaringly obvious, but important from a legal standpoint, the Tribunal has observed that prior to the screening, “Floreani was aware of the content of the film”. Indeed.

Both allegations, which are detailed in the ruling transcript, are that Floreani engaged in professional misconduct and unprofessional conduct. Both allegations note that he:

(i) failed to promote the health of the community through disease prevention and/or control; and/or 

(ii) failed to provide balanced, unbiased and evidence-based information to the public; and/or

(iii) promoted and/or provided materials, information or advice that was anti-vaccination in nature and/or made public comments discouraging vaccination.

That sounds like the Simon Floreani I’m familiar with. His transgressions in the above regard range far further afield than those covered in the Tribunal ruling. This is reflected in item 197 of the transcript:

The Board submitted the admitted conduct represented ‘repeated brazen departures from the standards expected of a registered chiropractor’.

This may be a statement about Simon Floreani. However, in that it describes his stance on vaccination, it confirms that similar views held by a large number of practicing chiropractors are therefore well removed from “standards expected of a registered chiropractor”. The problem is one inherent in chiropractic, although I rush to add it is not absolute in chiropractic nor exclusive to chiropractic. The re-emergence of vitalism in chiropractic has led to an influx of practitioners who almost certainly began the study of chiropractic with an established aversion to evidence-based medicine. Once qualified, they see themselves as representatives of a viable alternative to the medical profession if not a replacement for it. This is a problem of staggering proportions and one that the Chiropractic Board of Australia is seemingly ill equipped to address.

A unique example emerges when considering the transcript of the VCAT hearing. As noted there’s no dispute about Floreani’s compliance with conditions initially imposed in November 2017 [item 144]. As we read in item 150 the Board considered another notification about Floreani in 2019. It was received by the Board in 2017, and concerned conduct from 2016. The Board decided to investigate in May 2017, concluding on 26 July 2019. The professional conduct issue related to items published by Floreani on Facebook and his business website. He made claims about the effectiveness of chiropractic for conditions and circumstances, in the absence of any evidence. Namely [item 151]:

(a) Chiropractic care for childhood illness, colic, ADHD, autism, cerebral palsy and asthma;

(b) Chiropractic care to treat infants who are having trouble sleeping or have persistent ear infections or reflux;

(c) Suggesting homeopathy could be used in lieu of traditional vaccines; and

(d) Suggesting that conventional medicine was ‘poorly performing’.

The transcript tells us the investigation lasted twenty six months. Twenty one months in, on 20 February 2019, Floreani appeared on A Current Affair defending the actions of Andrew Arnold who was filmed the previous August performing a series of non-evidence based adjustments on a two week old infant. Floreani told ACA:

I’ve been doing this 20 years, and the proportion of paediatric patients has gone from one in 10 to three or four in 10.

The next day Arnold was put on an undertaking by the Chiropractic Board, published on his website, that he would not treat children from birth to twelve years or provide any material in support of such treatment on any internet platform. It’s inconceivable that Floreani was not aware of the Board’s ongoing investigation into his advertising. He chose to publicly defend Arnold despite the highly controversial and widely reported circumstances.

Ultimately the Board found that his 2016 performance was unsatisfactory and below the expected standard. He failed to work “within the limits of his competence and scope” and failed to comply with the Board’s Statement on Advertising. After AHPRA requested removal of the material it was removed in full. The transcript observed that this was said to demonstrate, some level of insight and compliance by Dr Floreani in relation to his advertising”. Floreani had already been cautioned in 2014 for provision of anti-vaccine material (see below). In response to the evidence-free claims above, which are anything but unique in chiropractic advertising, the Board cautioned:

The practitioner is cautioned in relation to the publishing of advertising and other material in relation to chiropractic care that is not supported by sufficient evidence.

One should acknowledge that this is seperate from the career antivaccinationist activity Simon Floreani is known for. Perhaps the record of compliance with conditions and the evidence he gave does support him having turned a corner. Perhaps. We can get an idea of his prior and current vaccination beliefs by revisiting his comments about his wife’s book, Well Adjusted Babies, both during the DeMoss interview and when giving evidence. Item 65 contains longer responses of Floreani’s from the DeMoss interview. During these he clearly relies on the book as a source of “evidence” and “research”. He talks about working with the regulator to show them “evidence”. He tells DeMoss his wife had been snowed under and produced:

18 reams of paper worth of evidence and research around every single question they asked […]

…and you give these people what they want. When they want evidence, you know, there is – we could not find one shred of evidence to show the efficacy of childhood vaccination.

This is only twenty eight months after the Board had cautioned Floreani for providing Australian Vaccination-risks Network booklets in his waiting room. It was submitted to Tribunal by Marion Isobel, counsel for the Board, that he had done so despite being aware that the Board had that year, “released a communique requesting practitioners to remove all anti-vaccination material from their websites and clinics” [item 202]. On 22 July 2014 the Board advised of the caution. It was as follows [item 148]:

The Chiropractic Board of Australia cautions Dr Floreani that in the future he ensures that he is familiar with and complies with the Board’s guidelines for the advertising of regulated health services.

Returning to Floreani’s chat with DeMoss, the transcript includes:

And, you know, really the evidence is not there to suggest that people are safe and our kids are safe, and it’s a really – you know, my wife, God bless her, has worked tirelessly to bring the evidence together, and her next book will be – you know, we’ve got this multimedia platform where we can share the research as it becomes available, in layman’s terms, to help people actually hear the truth, not through the media but through multimedia platforms. We can share around the world exactly what the truth is, exactly what the research says and let people make informed decisions…

This confirms the level of disinformation Floreani and his wife were content to disseminate through various media. Indeed VCAT and the Chiropractic Board of Australia are limited to Floreani’s conduct as a chiropractor, or activity demonstrated to be in a professional capacity. Well Adjusted Babies was published through the group Well Adjusted Pty Ltd. Floreani and his wife are the shareholders and Floreani’s son is the director [item 64].

In evidence, Floreani confirmed he had been active in the company as a “research assistant” and currently has no role. He maintained he does not promote the book Well Adjusted Babies. Dr. Ann Koehler [item 41] gave expert evidence to the Tribunal, including the risks associated with statements made in the book’s chapter on vaccination; chapter 15. She quoted the preface to this chapter [item 70]:

Laying aside the very real possibility that various vaccines are contaminated with animal viruses and may cause serious illness later in life (multiple sclerosis, cancer, leukaemia, ‘Mad Cow’s’ disease, etc) we must consider whether the vaccines really work for the intended purpose.

Regarding his role in development of the book Floreani said he, “helped distil information into lay terms” [item 187]. Perhaps the above paragraph reflects his prior, and not his current stance on vaccination. Or, perhaps not. Giving evidence, Floreani was asked if he stood by the content of chapter 15. He referred to the book as “an evidence-based document”. Dr. Koehler stated that the content was “inaccurate, misleading and alarmist”. Floreani disagreed. In fact it wasn’t something he wanted to discuss because the Tribunal was not “workshopping the book”. Asked how he would describe the content of chapter 15:

He said again it was an evidence-based document which was ‘up for discussion’ as was all research information. He said he was not in that arena and did not deal with that kind of material and was not prepared to ‘walk down that path’.

When asked if he still held the same views on vaccination but had agreed to not make public statements, Floreani replied that he was “a researcher at heart and a critical thinker” [item 189].

He said he would appraise any information and he was not fixed in his views. He said he was ‘very prepared to take [his] medicine’. He then stated that he understood that, in the whole area of vaccination, there were ‘diverse opinions’.

In addition, Floreani’s current curriculum vitae lists him as a “contributor” to Well Adjusted Babies 2005, Well Adjusted Babies Revised Edition 2006, Well Adjusted Babies 2nd Edition 2009 Vitality Productions and Well Adjusted Babies Practitioner Guide 2009 Vitality Productions [item 166]. The antivaccinationist in Simon Floreani is an ingrained part of his identity. His C.V. reflects that he is not only happy to be seen as having promoted anti-vaccination views but is proud of it.

Reading the transcript, it’s tempting to accept he is motivated to keep an anti-vaccine image out of his professional life. Yet even this purported change isn’t something that evolved. He has been forced into this position after repeated breaches of the Chiropractic Code and/or Statement. To use his own words he feels he has been “bludgeoned about the head” [item 185].

He was no doubt also motivated to avoid a suspension and, having already been suspended in 2017 by the IAC for the same matter, was aware the Board would seek another. Reading through the transcript it isn’t surprising that the Tribunal agreed one was warranted. Particularly in light of his entrenched views outlined above, which is reflected in item 14:

However we remained concerned that his statements to us showed he has not fully absorbed relevant Code obligations and he appeared to maintain a level of scepticism about vaccination.

Under Dr Floreani’s submissions on determinations, the transcript noted via his counsel, Mr. Shaun Maloney, that Floreani agreed a reprimand was an appropriate order [item 204]. Also, that written submissions “contended that a suspension was wholly unsustainable in this case and was in fact a punishment” [item 205]. It’s further contended that suspensions are reserved for protection of the public and to ensure the practitioner gains insight and ‘the message’. “None of those matters are present here”, it was submitted.

Other noteworthy points from submissions include [item 205]:

Dr Floreani has full insight. […] He is apologetic and has recanted. […] The risk of repetition is non-existent. […] This is a health practitioner who has committed isolated error for which he is truly sorry… […] …the only possible justification for a suspension is as a matter of general deterrence. […] It is illusory to suggest that general deterrence is necessary here… […] …seen in the light of that which it truly is, being an isolated act, made in error through a transitory erroneous opinion… […] Accordingly, any period of suspension is not warranted for protection of the public, either for specific deterrence or for general deterrence.

Clearly the Tribunal did not accept the argument from submissions. I also found the source and content of references for Floreani compelling [item 168]. Not one referee stated a clear purpose for the reference nor indicated they were aware of the VCAT proceedings or Floreani’s involvement with the Board. One name leaps out immediately. That of Canadian chiropractor Elizabeth Anderson-Peacock, who in 2019 lost re-election for her seat on the executive of the College of Chiropractors of Ontario (CCO). The National Post reported this was in the wake of speaking at a conference that also hosted Del Bigtree. Earlier that year she had endorsed Vaxxed – the same movie Floreani now faced disciplinary action for permitting to be screened at his clinic. The reference was dated 22 June 2021.

The Tribunal didn’t refer to this thumbing of the nose at proceedings from Floreani, but did provide a quoted section from Anderson-Peacock’s reference which they were “very concerned by”. It included in part [item 172]:

On occasion that [ensuring clients can make a fully informed decision] sometimes includes inconvenient or alternative viewpoints from mainstream allopathy. Dr Floreani encourages people to do their own research and think.

Another, dated 7 June 2021, referee is Mr Giles A. La Marche, Vice President of University Advancement and Enrolment, Life University Canada. On 13 April 2020 BuzzFeed News published Chiropractors Are Feeding Their Patients Fake Information About The Coronavirus. A paragraph was devoted to La Marche who, on April 10, had then shared a conspiracy video about Bill Gates’ plan to depopulate the planet with COVID-19 and articles on how Fauci was planning to profit from a COVID-19 vaccine. On 21 May 2021 La Marche featured in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution after posting a story from the antivax disinformation mill Children’s Health Defense on a purported COVID-19 vaccine death.

Floreani referee likens Hitler to free thinking scientists

More recently on 27 September this year La Marche posted a video on his Facebook page, Canadian doctors destroy the COVID-19 fear narrative. On 7 September he shared “important info” on “jaw dropping mask and vaccine failures”. He’s also just bought Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.’s book, The Real Anthony Fauci. On 30 August he wished someone a happy birthday. Smiling from the accompanying photo is one Billy DeMoss who hosted the Nazi Vaccination Regime in Australia podcast – the same podcast Floreani now faced disciplinary action for airing his anti-vaccination laundry on.

Eric Russell, past president of the New Zealand college of chiropractic is devoted to the promotion of vitalism in chiropractic and “subluxation-based research”. He has spoken of chiropractors going into the world to help humanity and the chiropractic philosophy. In 2009 he was inducted into Palmer College of Chiropractic’s Great Hall of Philosophers. At last year’s Parker seminar he spoke about chiropractic philosophy and how this shapes Wellness past, present and future.

In an undated reference chiropractor Kimberlie Furness praised Floreani, having been impressed by him almost twenty years ago. He had worked on infants, toddlers and children. The transcript observed [item 174]:

She referred to his practice being evidence-based, combining the ‘best available research evidence with clinical judgement and patient preference’.

The Tribunal observed it’s often inappropriate to present references from clients “given the uneven power dynamic between practitioner and patient” [item 171]. However they did note that Ms. Andrea Pavleka “senior executive, legal practitioner” [item 168], was positive about professional treatment received and personal qualities of Floreani.

Looking at these references it is far from surprising that the Tribunal observed:

Taken as a whole, the references did not show the authors were aware of the content of the Allegations or the nature of the Tribunal proceeding. Some appeared to support chiropractic care which might well fall outside the Code and Statement [item 222].

It’s equally unsurprising that submissions arguing against a suspension included.

His references are excellent. They reveal a respected and trustworthy health practitioner.

The underlying story of the references is a reflection of Floreani’s entire defence. It’s a story of going through the motions, keeping within the lines. Indeed Simon Floreani doesn’t have to think like a health professional, but merely act like one. Ultimately that’s all that is required and it underscores the problem with chiropractic today and the Board’s inability to initiate serious change.

More so, as a chiropractor, Floreani need not be educated as an effective health professional nor maintain and update an evidence-based skill set. Despite his rhetoric, evident in the transcript, of him being a “critical thinker”, referring to “evidence” and “research”, vitalistic chiropractic deals in anything but. Floreani just won’t admit that his disdain for the sciences important to public health, is what keeps leading to disciplinary action. From item 184:

Dr Floreani was asked about his past disciplinary history. He agreed a caution was an important regulatory tool for practitioners who ‘misunderstood’ what they were doing consciously or unconsciously.

As mentioned, Floreani reinforced his anti-vaccination views by defending Well Adjusted Babies. He contended the content was “up for discussion” and thinks it is “research information”. This is what defines Floreani and his wife, Jennifer Barham-Floreani. These problems and others, did not escape the Tribunal as evidenced by item 220. It included:

While the content of that book is not strictly before us, Dr Floreani’s comments raised questions in our mind about whether he has absorbed the fact that the profession of chiropractic does not have adequate training or expertise in the science supporting vaccination. His reference to the ‘political climate’ being a factor in the discussion about the safety of vaccines was worrying.

The Board should be worried. Consider the disparity between assurances Floreani gives to regulators, and his wife’s response to a 2013 crackdown by the Board on anti-vaxxers.

Chiropractors will certainly be working towards making sure that the information that they convey to parents is the latest, up-to-date information that presents both sides of the vaccination debate. I think it would be very rare that there would be chiropractors giving only one side of the argument.

Which brings us back to the problem the Board faces. Whether it’s anti-vaccination beliefs, advertising claims void of evidence (if not plausibility) or the motions carried out on infants and in the name of “maintenance”, pseudoscience is endemic in vitalistic chiropractic. It’s an ideology that is enormously profitable and it exudes a trendy energy that continues to be disturbingly popular with an unsuspecting, cashed-up public. One gets the feeling the horse has bolted in reading item 234, in which the Tribunal comment on discourse arising from Floreani’s support of Vaxxed.

The underlying scepticism towards science continues to be potentially damaging and likely to bring the profession into disrepute.

The Tribunal was aware Floreani presented himself as a leader in his field [item 236]. It didn’t help him. Rather it contributed to the decision to enforce a suspension. It was seen as:

…an aggravating factor because it is inconsistent with the standards of the profession for such a person to promote the anti-vaccination cause and to provide unbalanced, biased and non-evidence-based information to the public.

This is as it should be. Any perceived success of Floreani should add to the suspension’s value in deterring others. Floreani had held a number of influential positions with the Chiropractors’ Association of Australia (CAA), now the Australian Chiropractors’ Association, including president from 2009-2012 [item 162]. Under his direction and authority, pseudoscience gained firm traction. His supporters were delighted when Floreani decided to run for the 2017 CAA presidential election. Then they were crushed when his short suspension (for the same reasons that led to this hearing), threatened his chances. At the time reasonable hank published Suspended chiropractor’s supporters liken themselves to Jews and AHPRA to Nazi Germany.

It’s an essential read and very much a case of in their own words. In pleading Floreani’s case they apply the very same offensive allusion to Nazism that has led in part to his suspension. For our purposes note the familiar theme we have come to hear almost daily during the COVID-19 pandemic. Often from chiropractors, one of whom was a referee for Floreani in this very hearing. Namely that when vaccination is attacked, those who defend the high standards of evidence-based health care and the science it relies upon are as the fascists of Nazi Germany. Those who wish to do what they want regardless of the harm it may cause others, are as the persecuted Jews whose very nature was unjustly targeted.

Which for the very last time brings us back to the problems faced by the Chiropractic Board of Australia. Problems that are ingrained in fundamentalist elements in chiropractic, in all countries in which they thrive. Australians have the right to ask how this came about. How can a movement that seemingly regards accepted evidence and regulatory standards as almost anathema, hold the position it does? How can chiropractors, be highly regarded by colleagues and rise to positions of influence, whilst spreading harmful disinformation?

Floreani’s referee Liz Anderson-Peacock was, in fact, one of three senior members of the council of the College of Chiropractors of Ontario to endorse anti-vaccination views. At the time she was vice-president of the CCO, report the National Post. There are similarities to Australia. The CCO is not unlike the CAA under Floreani’s influence. Jonathon Jarry is a science communicator at the Office for Science and Society at Canada’s McGill University. He noted that anti-vaccination views are “innate to a certain persistent strain of chiropractic”. With respect to the three members of the CCO, he had a winning comment:

If a professional regulator is allowed to be so wrong about a basic building block of public health, the public should demand change for its own protection. Swift action is needed to correct this dangerous misfire.

The answer to our questions then, is in appreciating that chiropractic here is often modelled on the already tarnished international movement that resurrected the unscientific beliefs of D.D. Palmer and now passes them off as health care. In fairness to Palmer, who got the idea from a deceased doctor’s ghost, he stated in 1911 that chiropractic should be regarded as a religion and he, its founder. The 126th anniversary of his first “adjustment” was recently observed on Facebook by Floreani’s referee, Gilles La Marche.

By necessity, Australia must at times internalise scientific trends from overseas. This is particularly true for evidence-based medicine. By definition then, we should firmly resist the influence of vitalistic chiropractic. The challenge for the Chiropractic Board of Australia and indeed for AHPRA is to do just that. A proactive regulatory process is needed. It should not be the responsibility of advocates for evidence-based public health to ensure reckless, dangerous actors are brought to account.

Simon Floreani has for years actively promoted disinformation and misinformation related to vaccination whilst attacking evidence-based medicine. He has given no indication that he has changed his views. Were he to have genuinely changed he would be a rarity in fundamentalist chiropractic. More so, he only need refrain from being overtly anti-vaccination in a professional sense. The problem with this, is that he never need be motivated to give sound advice on the topic.

A six month suspension is an undoubtedly insufficient sanction. Yet given the current scope of regulatory power it is an understandably appropriate response. The real problem is that Simon Floreani and other chiropractors like him should never have been practising in the first place.

That is the problem that must be managed.

* The Australian Vaccination-risks Network was at the time the Australian Vaccination-skeptics Network, and before that the Australian Vaccination Network. They are referred to in the ruling transcript as the Anti-Vaccination Network.


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There’s Something About VAERS

Since the inception of VAERS, anti-vaccination activists have misused reports as a cornerstone in their campaign to misinform and mislead. Vaccination against COVID-19 has led to that misuse exploding.

What is VAERS?

VAERS is the U.S. based Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System managed by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and co-managed by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It is an early warning system that collates reports of suspected adverse events following immunisation. A full explanation is here. Reports may be submitted by anyone who has received a vaccine authorised in the United States. Doctors, health workers, family members and associates can also submit reports. It is an open passive reporting system that allows reports from anyone who is aware of an adverse event they perceive as related to a vaccine.

It follows that the reports are just that; reports. Reports that contain no information about causality or indeed accuracy. This is not to say they are inaccurate. Rather that their true meaning, and indeed impact, can only be borne out in the context of further evaluation. Evaluation will assess any pattern of events, related health problems, any identifiable mechanism of causality and the time frame between vaccination and adverse event. Suspect vaccines would be suspended and emergency investigations employed to assess the scale and seriousness of adverse reaction(s). If the adverse event is confirmed to be more significant than in pre-licencing trials, the vaccine is removed from market.

Research and peer reviewed publication would follow, describing these findings. This information is of enormous benefit to the design, manufacture and trial of future vaccines. What stands out immediately is that determining adverse events due to vaccination requires significant input seperate from VAERS. The most important and irrefutable element about VAERS reports is that they do not represent cause and effect.

The VAERS site includes a Guide to Interpreting VAERS Data.

Under Evaluating VAERS Data:

When evaluating data from VAERS, it is important to note that for any reported event, no cause-and-effect relationship has been established. […]

VAERS collects data on any adverse event following vaccination, be it coincidental or truly caused by a vaccine. The report of an adverse event to VAERS is not documentation that a vaccine caused the event.

Under VAERS Data Limitations:

Reports vary in quality and completeness. They often lack details and sometimes can have information that contains errors. […]

No proof that the event was caused by the vaccine is required in order for VAERS to accept the report. VAERS accepts all reports without judging whether the event was caused by the vaccine.

The above is a small selection from the guide. Yet it is enough to inform readers seeking definitive information on adverse events linked to vaccines, that it will not be found there. Exploiting the reports to provide an accurate picture of potential or existing problems takes resources. Resources that individuals don’t have. Consider the case of RotaShield. This rotavirus vaccine was taken off the U.S. market in 1999 because of an association between the vaccine and intussusception. The U.S. Advisory Committee on Immunisation Practices (ACIP) voted for its removal after an in depth review of available data. RotaShield was available for just months.

Paul Offit is well schooled in how VAERS is misused. He is also a firm supporter of civilian reporting because, as intended, unanticipated side effects can be caught this way. He has referred to VAERS as a “hypothesis-generating mechanism”, and observed about RotaShield:

There were a number of VAERS reports that patients within a week developed an intestinal blockage. A study was done and it was shown to be a causal association. VAERS was the tipoff. There’s value in it.

Medscape provide detail on the scale of the study:

The suspected association between RRV-TV and intussusception based on a review of VAERS data led CDC, in conjunction with state and local health departments, to implement a case-control study [in 19 U.S. states among 429 infants and 1,763 matched controls] and case-series analysis and a retrospective cohort study [among 463,277 children].

So yes. If it’s confirmation of adverse events due to vaccination one seeks, merely perusing VAERS isn’t enough. This doesn’t stop antivaxxers from abusing the VAERS database to create the illusion of wide scale “vaccine injury”. As we’ve seen time and again during the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, screenshots and memes reach a large audience. Discredited Australian Instagram influencer and anti-vaccine advocate, Taylor Winterstein, has misused VAERS data to attack “mainstream mentality”. These tactics have the added advantage of side-stepping the guide to interpreting what is limited data on VAERS. The same approach is used by right wing cable news outlets. There are numerous techniques used to avoid the reality that there is only a temporal, and not a causal, relationship between vaccine and adverse reaction. Presenting government data carries a certain authority. Stripping it of context ensures it is inaccurate.

OpenVAERS

Post hoc ergo propter hoc: After this therefore because of this. This fallacy is the fuel driving the VAERS misinformation empire. Without it, outright claims cannot stand. Nor could the inference and extrapolation that comes from accepting widespread vaccine injury and death. The Vaxxed II bus in Australia is a typical example. It began last year, collecting dubious testimonials on “the vaccine-killed and injured”. Last month it began targeting the COVID-19 vaccine. Removing context from VAERS data ensures post hoc fallacy. This is exactly what the OpenVAERS project does. Launched in September 2019, it was initially run from archivist.net as confirmed on the Facebook page of The Archivist. In January 2021 the domain switched to openvaers.com and focused on COVID-19 vaccination data. Unsurprisingly OpenVAERS is a favourite of antivaxxers. Until recently, the index page offered:

The OpenVAERS Project allows browsing and searching of the reports without the need to compose an advanced search (more advanced searches can be done at medalerts.org or vaers.hhs.gov).

That’s what we find on the archived index page as at 1 August 2021. The next capture is 23 August 2021. At some time between these captures, OpenVAERS included a link to its own copy of the VAERS disclaimer both on the index page and its impactful VAERS COVID Vaccine Data page. The change on the vaccine data page was minor. Compare the 23 July and 20 August pages below. Keep in mind this is what readers see when they land on the data page. To appreciate the importance of context I’ve included a screenshot of the government VAERS data page.

Prior to this, users of OpenVAERS would have to navigate to the About page and follow the link to the VAERS About page. The change came just prior to the publication by Logically, a misinformation tracking group, of an article on 12 August which revealed the name and face behind the site. Logically had posed questions and a request for comment, which may have prompted the design change. Lizabeth Pearl Willner (below) better known as Liz Willner believes her daughter was injured by vaccination and began posting anti-vaccine content on social media in April 2019. She insists the site exists to provide easy access to official data.

There were significantly more visits to OpenVAERS (1.23 million) than to VAERS (796.63k) between February and July this year. Logically discovered that 30 percent of referrals to OpenVAERS are from the right wing, fake news site, Gateway Pundit. 10 percent are from conspiracy theorist Vernon Coleman (old man in a chair). These sites promote COVID conspiracies, pseudoscience and anti-vaccination rhetoric. Willner’s now deleted Facebook account and recently deactivated Twitter handle @1pissedoffmom1, amplified the reach and impact of OpenVAERS.

Until April 2021 OpenVAERS included a dedicated and searchable vaccine excipients table. The OpenVAERS blog now returns a 404 page. Indeed those behind OpenVAERS seem intent on having their deleted content also removed from archive.org. When running, the blog provided a one stop antivax shop for COVID-19 misinformation for “warrior moms, dads and grandparents”.

Call For Action posts contained alarming inaccuracies about the COVID-19 pandemic and the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine. The posts linked to ready-made PDFs to be printed out and mailed to “friends, family, and elected officials”. The drill, as they called it, was “10 copies, 10 stamps, 10 envelopes, 10 chances to wake someone up”.

As recently as 2 August this year we find:

Unfortunately, coronavirus vaccines excel at producing iatrogenic injury. Since their rushed introduction in December, these shots have produced four times more fatalities than the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

A link to that particular post, along with the 9/11 reference was shared on The Defender. That’s the “news and views” site of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s Children’s Health Defense. The potential for harm by encouraging vaccine hesitancy in the midst of a pandemic is significant. Willner has ignored requests for comment from VICE News. The OpenVAERS blog also claims to be getting around “the criminal censorship of essential vaccine information on social media”.

Successful misuse of data this way relies upon the base rate fallacy. When vast sections of the population are involved, background mortality and morbidity become significant. Adverse events and deaths are reported in such numbers not because the vaccine is responsible, but because so many people are being vaccinated on any given day. Each person is given literature on how to report adverse reactions to VAERS. The V-Safe initiative includes regular text messages asking about any symptoms or changes to health. Attention given COVID-19 vaccination is unparalleled and this is reflected in data. Reports to VAERS (CSV VAERS Data accessed 3 September 2021) for all of 2020 totalled 63,544. To date, reports for 2021 ending 20 August, total 674,382. Not only are these reports unconfirmed but the safety of the COVID-19 vaccine is regularly affirmed.

Kolina Koltai is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for an Informed Public based at the University of Washington. She describes OpenVAERS as “misinformation 101” and stresses that such decontextualisation is common to misinformation. Koltai uses such examples in classes that she teaches. In responses to questions posed by Logically, Liz Willner accused them of misrepresenting both VAERS and OpenVAERS. She cited data collected between 1990 – 2010 to argue, misleadingly, that “83% of reports are health care workers and Pharma”. Despite all evidence pointing to her, she insists OpenVAERS is a team effort. This is reflected on the site.

From the FAQ. Why is OpenVAERS necessary?

We built openVAERS because we found the HHS site difficult to navigate and get information from. We wanted a way to browse reports. Once we had that we decided to make it public.

How generous. Who is behind OpenVAERS?

OpenVAERS is a project developed by a small team of people with vaccine injuries or have children with vaccine injuries. We do not accept donations or solicit fees. There is zero monetization of this site. It is purely created in order to help others browse the VAERS records and to identify the reported signals that may otherwise get missed.

Here Willner misuses the term “signals”, specifically in how they relate to establishing risk. According to the CDC under How VAERS works:

Patterns of adverse events, or an unusually high number of adverse events reported after a particular vaccine, are called “signals.” If a signal is identified through VAERS, scientists may conduct further studies to find out if the signal represents an actual risk.

The design of OpenVAERS allows immediate access to VAERS reports. These, in conjunction with tabulated figures, can be easily screenshot and spread via social media. Misleading commentary on these platforms aims to encourage vaccine hesitancy. One claim is that COVID-19 vaccines cause serious cardiac events and heart attack. In addressing this topic the indefatigable Orac picks apart flawed manipulation of data from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Children’s Health Defense. Back in May the energetic David Gorski addressed the “vaccine holocaust” based on VAERS data that Mike Adams bravely announced. Examples abound. The one constant, and undoubtedly something to be factored into public education, is that misuse of unverified reports is a key driver of vaccine hesitancy.

Despite long standing problems, VAERS works. RotaShield is a case in point. Twenty years of research preceded its approval by the FDA. Four months after ACIP recommended a three dose schedule for all infants it was suspended to allow for a CDC investigation. There had been twelve reports to VAERS of intussusception. Dorit Reiss, a law professor at UC Hastings and pro-vaccination activist, shares Paul Offit’s view that submitting reports to VAERS should be easy for members of the public. Reiss has suggested withholding reports that are “clearly not credible”.

One imagines this would include suicides, drownings, car accidents, homicides, and so on. To appreciate the less credible, or in this case incredible, consider the case of James Laidler M.D. He submitted a report to the effect that the influenza vaccine turned him into The Incredible Hulk. It was accepted. To reinforce this flaw Kevin Leitch of Left Brain Right Brain, submitted a report to VAERS that his daughter had turned into Wonder Woman following vaccination. This too was accepted. The ease of submitting dubious reports has been raised with antivaxxers. The unanimous reply is that submitting a false report to VAERS is a felony. This was also argued by Liz Willner when defending her conduct to Logically. The Hulk and Wonder Woman however, remain felony free.

It is clear though, that VAERS as it presently exists is of benefit to U.S. public health. Given that so much of the anti-vaccination response to the COVID-19 vaccine rollout was anticipated it is unfortunate that the abuse of VAERS was not proactively met. The outlay of resources to say, educate, or at least inform the public would not be prohibitive. The probable cost of managing the harm that exploitation of the system has, and will continue to cause is significant. Of course that’s an easy observation to make in hindsight. Nonetheless, any measures taken now to manage misinformation adversely effecting vaccine uptake would likely be justified.

VAERS Underreporting

The misuse of VAERS data is rarely complete without also misrepresenting the fact that adverse events following vaccination go largely unreported. In other words VAERS data represents underreporting. Given that the majority of events are minor, such as injection site soreness and redness or involve headaches, fever, aches, nausea, itching and so on, this is to be expected. For the anti-vaccination lobby the aim has always been to create the illusion of large scale death and serious injury, then compound this by claiming it represents only a small fraction of actual cases. Judy Wilyman favoured this tactic to smear successful HPV immunisation campaigns and indeed all vaccines. Liz Willner doesn’t disappoint.

VAERS is the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System put in place in 1990. It is a voluntary reporting system that has been estimated to account for only 1% (see the Lazarus Report) of vaccine injuries. OpenVAERS is built from the HHS data available for download at vaers.hhs.gov.

From the OpenVAERS blog post of 2 August 2021:

The 518,769 injury reports are just the tip of the iceberg as a government-funded study concluded that “fewer than 1% of vaccine adverse events are reported.”

This is more decontextualisation. It is unlikely visitors will read the report or indeed search for definitive reviews of the one percent finding. Also, as data are from a government authority, and underreporting is represented on government sites, an appeal to authority is in constant play. Antivaxxers have thus quite confidently used this two pronged approach for over a decade. Adapting to the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine while obfuscating increased reporting of symptoms and the role of V-Link, has proven seamless for established lobbyists.

The figure of 1% comes from a report from Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, Inc., authored by Ross Lazarus. Data examined are from 1 December 2007 to 30 September 2010. These data include all possible adverse events. Prior evaluation of the reporting rates of various events confirms that minor events are rarely reported and more serious events routinely reported. A 2014 report on surveillance of adverse events following immunisation in NSW, Australia noted that:

Only 11% of the reported adverse events were categorised as serious

Reuters report the case of an antivaxxer reiterating falsely that only one percent of deaths and injuries following the COVID-19 vaccine are reported. The article includes this comment from a CDC spokesperson:

Mild events, like a rash, tend to be reported less frequently than severe events (like a seizure). We have data to show that serious adverse events that occur after vaccination are more likely to be reported than non-serious adverse events. Events such as a sore arm at the injection site might not get reported since they are expected and therefore people don’t feel the need to report them.

A December 1995 study of passive surveillance sensitivity in The American Journal of Public Health reported 72% for poliomyelitis after the oral polio vaccine and less than 1% for rash and thrombocytopenia after MMR. A 2020 study of VAERS sensitivity published in Vaccine noted in Background, a similar rate of 68% capture for poliomyelitis after oral polio vaccine and 47% capture of intussusception cases after rotavirus vaccine. The target objective of anaphylaxis and GBS following various vaccines revealed a range from 12% to 76%. As early as 2003 a study found that serious events are rare.

What antivaxxers won’t tell you

The evident paucity inherent in the misuse of VAERS data becomes apparent when examining another appeal to authority employed by antivaxxers. Namely the amount of money awarded to “victims of vaccine injury” via the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP). Total compensation paid out over the life of the VICP, since 1988, is in the area of $4.6 billion US. Members of the anti-vaccine lobby often cite various approximations of this figure to underscore their claim that vaccine damage occurs on a huge scale. In fact a simple analysis of VICP figures reveals the opposite to be true.

The report states that for every 1 million vaccine doses, “approximately 1 individual was compensated”. This is a familiar figure. The table below contains the monthly VICP statistics update report for 1 November 2021. It may be found on page three of the data and adjudication statistics report from Health Resources and Services Administration. It is headed Adjudication Categories, by Alleged Vaccine for Petitions Filed Since the Inclusion of Influenza as an Eligible Vaccine for Filings. NB: Influenza doses = 45% of total doses since 2006.

From 1 January 2006 to 31 December 2019 the number of vaccine doses distributed, as sourced from the CDC, totals 4,092,757,049. The total number of compensable cases is 6,086. Or 0.00015% of distributed doses. The Influenza vaccine accounts for 71.8% of compensable doses. Total settlements, including dismissed cases and non-compensable cases to date, have reached 8,551. Or 0.00021% of distributed doses. This represents a striking absence of vaccine injury. Unsurprisingly you will not hear these figures from the anti-vaccination lobby.

TABLE: Petitions Filed Since the Inclusion of Influenza as an Eligible Vaccine for Filing [updated monthly]

Since January 1988, 24,538 petitions have been filed [page 5]. 8,439 or 34% of petitions were compensated. More so, as the HRSA report states, “Being awarded compensation for a petition does not necessarily mean that the vaccine caused the alleged injury”.

And:

Approximately 60 percent of all compensation awarded by the VICP comes as a result of a negotiated settlement between the parties in which HHS has not concluded, based upon review of the evidence, that the alleged vaccine(s) caused the alleged injury.

Before moving on it’s worth reflecting on the fact that both VAERS and the VICP exist thanks to the efforts of established anti-vaccine campaigners such as Barbara Loe Fisher. Their campaigning led to the creation of the 1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, which is itself the subject of Andrew Wakefield’s most recent film claiming widespread vaccine injury. As we can plainly see not only are compensated cases exceedingly rare, but only 40% of those demonstrate a causal link to any vaccine. One expects it is not rash to expect that in time we will see similar figures pertaining to COVID-19 vaccines.

Antivax Winning Formula

Misrepresenting VAERS data is a simple winning formula for antivaxxers. It follows that it can be applied to any adverse event reporting system, particularly those employing passive surveillance. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout is unprecedented and subject to significant scrutiny. Governments support the reporting of adverse events and deaths post COVID-19 vaccination. The winning formula thus ensures the anti-vaccination lobby has a significant advantage in spreading its message. Data from the U.K., the E.U. and Australia have also been misused this way. The exploitation of coincidental deaths following COVID-19 vaccination was met quickly and comprehensively by Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration. Not surprisingly this had no effect on those opposed to vaccination against COVID-19.

Analysis of application of the winning formula to other government reporting systems is beyond the scope of this post. However, Australians have made good use of the tactic both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Underreporting of adverse events was mentioned in a May 2019 press release from the Informed Medical Options Party. They promise a “more accurate” system if elected. More recently, misused data from the U.K. Yellow Card voluntary reporting system was retweeted by Australian senator Malcom Roberts. United Australia Party leader, Craig Kelly, randomly texts Australians with a link to screenshots of reports to the TGA Database of Adverse Event Notifications. In April 2021 Judy Wilyman cited conspiracy theory website accounts of unverified reports to smear COVID-19 vaccine. A flyer packed with false and unverified deaths and injuries from four different reporting systems was tweeted by Meryl Dorey in mid June 2021. Watch this space.

Conclusion

The U.S. Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) is a passive reporting system open to the public that has, since its inception, been exploited by the anti-vaccination lobby. The absence of any causal relationship between vaccine and report is ignored by antivaxxers. The introduction of the COVID-19 vaccine has accompanied unprecedented reporting due to increased vaccination with active encouragement of recipients to use the VAERS system. The rise in reports was to be expected. This clinical reality has been obfuscated by players in the anti-vaccination community who have skilfully used social media to present background mortality and morbidity as causally linked to COVID-19 vaccination.

The website OpenVAERS, dedicated to misrepresenting VAERS data has focused exclusively on COVID-19 vaccination since January 2021. An investigation by Logically found Lizabeth Pearl Willner from California is the force behind the site. A frenetic antivaxxer, Liz Willner attempted to dismiss her activity as provision of easy access to data. Since the investigation she has been actively removing her anti-vaccination footprint on social media whilst keeping the site active.

Payouts from the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program to date total $4.6 billion. Often cited by antivaxxers as further evidence of widespread vaccine related harm, VICP settlements from 2006 – 2019 equate to 0.00015% of vaccine doses given in that period. The Influenza vaccine accounts for 71.6% of this total.

Misrepresenting VAERS data to convince others that vaccines cause significant harm has proven to be both durable and successful. Combined with the misleading claim that only one percent of all events are reported, the result has almost certainly been an as yet unknown increase in vaccine hesitancy. Familiarising the public with the manner in which such data are misused may alleviate some amount of vaccine hesitancy.

COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective.


References and reading

Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System – HHS

Guide to interpreting VAERS data – HHS

CDC: VAERS

Surveillance for Adverse Events Following Immunization Using VAERS – CDC

Selected Adverse Events Reported After COVID-19 Vaccination – CDC

Anti-vaccine activists use a government database to scare the publicScience

Anti-Vaxxers Misuse Federal Data to Falsely Claim COVID Vaccines Are Dangerous – VICE

California Woman Behind Antivax Site Outperforming Government DatabaseLogically

The Woman Who Secretly Runs One of the World’s Biggest Anti-Vax Websites From Her House – VICE

Hugely Popular Antivax Site Is Just Some Lady In Piedmont

Unverified reports of vaccine side effects in VAERS aren’t the smoking guns portrayed by right-wing media outlets – they can offer insight into vaccine hesitancy – The Conversation

Reports of adverse effects in US database aren’t confirmed to be linked to vaccination – Fact check

Large real-world study: Pfizer’s COVID vaccine is safe

Electronic Support for Public Health–Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (ESP:VAERS) – PDF

Underreporting and Post-Vaccine Deaths in VAERS Explained

The reporting sensitivity of VAERS for anaphylaxis and for Guillain-Barré syndrome

VICP Monthly Statistics Report October 2021

VICP Monthly Statistics Report November 2021

Last update: 23 November 2021

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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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