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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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 September 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 5,983. Or 0.00015% of distributed doses. The Influenza vaccine accounts for 71.6% of compensable doses. Total settlements, including dismissed cases and non-compensable cases to date, have reached 8,438. Or 0.00020% 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

Since January 1988, 24,335 petitions have been filed [page 5]. 8,278 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

Last update: 7 September 2021

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Monica Smit: COVID-19 charlatan given ABC air time

It seems longer, but it has been only two and a half months, since we dropped in on Monica Smit and her self-appointed government-in-waiting, absurdly named Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA).

The occasion was their attendance during COVID-19 lockdown at a meal held at Moda Kitchen and Bar in Seddon, in breach of the Victorian Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008. It was all a bit of a chuckle, given that the group effectively outed themselves and the restaurant by boasting about it on social media. The amusement was short lived for Moda however. On 6 August they announced their imminent closure on Instagram and Facebook. Their last meal was 14 August, just 11 weeks after hosting RDA. A representative told Star Weekly that the closure was unrelated to that event.

The representative claimed that mask-wearing mandates and lockdowns had not effected the business, insisting, “To be honest, we’ve never been so busy”. Although the attitude of the establishment to public health regulations was echoed in the observation:

Running a business is hard work and with or without the unlawful restrictions we were ready for a change.

Speaking of unlawful, it should be noted that Moda Kitchen and Bar had made the RDA business listing. The listing provides details of businesses, prepared to exploit loopholes in public health regulations that keep us safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most specifically, this relates to mask-wearing and QR code check-in. There are exemptions to the requirement to wear a face mask. These include breathing difficulties, facial skins problems, intellectual disability, mental illness and having experienced trauma. The Privacy Act 1998, The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 and The Equal Opportunity Act ensure that no-one, should they not be wearing a mask, can be asked to provide evidence of such a disability unless their prior consent has been given.

It is thus quite easy for the dishonest to venture out without a mask. This is something we’ve seen as mask-less RDA disciples with phone cameras taunt police. The business listing idea is fluffed up through RDA concern that businesses might not be aware of the risks of discriminating. When it comes to QR code compliance, a business may simply trust patrons to do the right thing. Or perhaps trust them to do what Monica advises; choose to check in with pen and paper and be trusted to leave genuine details. If you happen to be a business that regard essential public health initiatives as “unlawful restrictions”, as Moda did, your RDA business listing is this.

RDA business listing – Moda Kitchen and Bar

ABC Radio Nth QLD

Monica Smit offers unregulated “advice” about public health and wellbeing mandates. On 12 August 2021, Monica was interviewed by Adam Stephens during the Drive programme on ABC North Queensland. The reason for this was RDA “You Can Say No” pamphlet-dropping in Cairns. Dave, a small business owner, was interviewed prior to Smit. He wasn’t impressed and wasn’t fooled.

The flyer tactic backfired, as the only change in his behaviour was to place a sign outside his shop, reinforcing that no mask or no QR code check-in, meant no entry. That Drive programme is archived and Dave and Adam begin their chat at the 45:00 min mark. Next comes Monica Smit, introduced by Adam as Monica Schmitt. Text messages, read out after a news break, were unanimously negative. If you’d prefer the highlights package, grab this mp3 here or listen below.

  • Cairns resident objects to RDA flyers, Monica Smit (4min), Adam reads text messages (9:40)

RDA recently made the Daily Telegraph’s top ten list of COVID misinformation spreaders in Australia. You may thus wonder why the ABC would give them air time. I would rush to add that the Daily Telegraph (DT) is not equivalent to the US based Centre for Countering Digital Hate. The latter spent significant time and resources, collating information on those they ultimately termed the disinformation dozen. Nonetheless, the central thesis remains intact. Despite clearly fallacious claims that place the community at risk, well-financed groups and individuals manipulate Facebook to their advantage. The DT reported that RDA subscribe to the belief no COVID-19 vaccine has been properly tested, and in fact weaken the immune system.

They also allow their name to back the conspiracy theorist standard that the vaccines are “manufactured by people who openly want population control”. Professor Mary-Louise McLaws specialises in infection prevention and control. She rightly observed those claims were “completely fallacious” and “wickedly inaccurate”. In a welcome development since the DT piece on 6 August, RDA had their page, and shortly after their backup page, unpublished from Facebook. That came on the heels of their aggressive campaign to boycott SPC, after the fruit packing giant mandated COVID-19 vaccination for employees. The boycott campaign resulted in product tampering and threats that presently continue.

Editorial standards?

Adam Stephens did give his reasons for interviewing Smit. He observed that it’s interesting that there are people that hold this view. That there are people in regional QLD who are active members of RDA, as evidenced by pamphlet distribution in Cairns. He continued;

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.

I’m aware that listeners took the trouble to contact the ABC to voice concern. Before we examine Monica Smit’s claims, let’s consider the following. Smit was not introduced with sufficient context to advise listeners that they may be misled. It was not stressed that Monica Smit and RDA are not medical or pandemic specialists or that they are not advised by medical experts. It was not explained that their website provides no reputable or evidence-based information. Indeed, it was not stressed that the group has no relevant qualifications specific to the management of COVID-19, or any illness, at all. Finally, there was no public health representative on hand to address the claims made by Smit.

One might then ask, were ABC standards for editorial accuracy satisfactorily met? Granted, a context of sorts was laid down during Stephens’ chat with business owner Dave. Whether this was enough to reinforce that Smit and RDA act in dissonance to both government guidelines and evidence-based health policy, is not merely unclear, but unlikely. Monica Smit brings a firm, if utterly misguided, confidence to her stints behind any microphone. It came to the fore as she insisted that masks were not only useless and causing harm but there is, “so much science out there” to support this.

“Because it’s the truth”

When asked why she is informing people that they don’t have to follow mask mandates or QR code check-ins if they choose, Smit replied, “Well because it’s the truth”. With QR codes she advises to manually sign-in or shop somewhere else.

In effect this would mean finding a shop that has adopted Smit’s loophole advice. As we’ve come to expect from RDA on evading mask wearing, she mentions PTSD, anxiety, depression – the “huge list of exemptions”.

She blames, “the coercion and the scare tactics of the police and the government”, for forcing those with legitimate reasons for exemption, into wearing masks. At no time did Smit offer a legitimate reason as to why Australians without a health condition can refuse mask wearing. Unless of course, you are willing to feign one (I’m not suggesting she advised this). She followed on by claiming long term mask wearing is “really dangerous”.

That word brings to mind the long debunked claim that oxygen is restricted and CO2 intake rises to poisonous levels. Smit gushes that “People have, you know, passed out at work”. A fan of Tucker Carlsen, Smit is likely influenced by the research letter pushed by him about six weeks ago, and now retracted from JAMA Pediatrics. Smit goes one better, claiming there is, “[A] lot of science to say that they cause cognitive issues with teenage children as well, and they’re wearing them eight hours a day”.

Smit might get that notion from an isolated German survey, looking at “complaints from adolescents and children caused by wearing a mask”. This is not “a lot of science”, and comes with an editorial note stressing the absence of a causal link. There is also the genuine concern related to the importance of non verbal facial cues, to children who are learning. These are minimised by face masks. Particularly in the classroom. As fate would have it, or rather, as science would have it, this has been studied pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. CNN published a handy summary here. If you land on the conservative City Journal, you will find arguably emotive material to support Smit’s contention.

Adam Stephens questioned Smit on whether she really did have substantial supporting science, given the evidence-based source material that advises government policy. Smit was glad he asked because in March and April of last year the media, “were saying that a healthy person wearing a mask is an absolute waste of a mask”. She wondered “why the narrative has changed”. In fact that was because of a WHO-funded systematic review and meta-analysis, published in June of 2020 in The Lancet. More so this was clearly conveyed in “the narrative” presented by the media. Consider this non-ambiguous heading in The Guardian: Victorians may be now be told to wear face masks to halt COVID-19 – what’s changed? Then Smit confidently offered another disingenuous and factually wrong line.

The ‘Brett Sutton’ lie

Smit claimed:

I know that Brett Sutton, he’s the Victorian CHO (Chief Health Officer) here, he actually did a full study paper on how useless masks are to stop the spread of disease. So basically the narrative has just changed but the science has not changed and that is that masks are dangerous.

A “full study paper”? Sounds impressive. Also, I happen to agree with Monica here. The science has not changed. Nor has the old tactic of cherry picking and manipulating facts to support disinformation. What we find on checking Sutton’s authorship of research, is a 2001 literature review in Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, that he co-authored. At the time Sutton was based at North West Regional Hospital in Burnie, Tasmania. Both he and his co-author worked in the Department of Anaesthesia. The title of the literature review was Do Anaesthetists Need to Wear Surgical Masks in the Operating Theatre? A Literature Review with Evidence-Based Recommendations.

The review text could not be more clear. It was undertaken due to the absence of published data on the unmasking of the anaesthetist alone. In the modern operating theatre, exactly how this would impact post operative wound infection, if at all, needed elucidation. It was noted that surgical masks offer incomplete protection from bacteria and viruses. More so, plastic face shields provide better protection from infection for the anaesthetist. Three compelling studies, led the authors to conclude in part;

These studies provide sound scientifically-based evidence that, in the setting of a modern operating theatre with laminar flow/steriflow systems, surgical masks should no longer be considered mandatory for anaesthetists and non-scrub staff during most surgical procedures.

There is a reason for the extra detail on this review. This claim about Brett Sutton’s past authorship is not just misinformation, already tossed about like a Frisbee at a church picnic. This is hot-off-the-tongue disinformation. A nice fresh lie still in its packaging, delivered over the airwaves for the gullible to snatch up, unwrap and distribute. It has the added connotation that Victoria’s CHO is not only aware that masks are ineffective, but had produced “a full study paper” to this effect. Listeners may wrongly assume this is both recent, and in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Smit studiously avoids admitting the paper is nineteen years old, and that it examines only anaesthetists and non-scrub staff, in operating theatres. Whilst cherry picking, she missed the one that suggested plastic face shields offer better protection.

In July 2020 Brett Sutton presented advice on wearing face masks, in areas experiencing stage three restrictions. At the same time the reasons for the mandating of mask wearing were being thoroughly discussed in mainstream media. It was impossible to miss. To suggest there was just a sudden change in “narrative” is wrong. Adam Stephen put it to Smit that her advice could place people at risk of COVID-19.

Deep breath

Without drawing breath, she responds;

Well I just totally disagree with that because, um, you know I think the government is putting people at risk of serious problems ah, with lockdowns and things like that so, it’s proven around the world that lockdowns don’t work. Australia has the worst lockdowns actually, I think, in the world. We’re being laughed at overseas because of how harsh our lockdowns are. Some, some, some countries have hundreds of thousands of cases daily and they’re still living about their lives, and we get one case and we close borders.

So ah, I would say the government is being a lot more dangerous than we are, and we’re actually empowering people to have critical thinking, which the government doesn’t want. They don’t… the government’s not giving people all the information. And that’s… and we get censored. I just got taken off Facebook. I had sixty six thousand followers and I get censored because my science is apparently not true, but I can back it up. But a lot of the science that’s said on mainstream media can’t be backed up but there’s no censorship for them so it’s really difficult.

It has not been “proven around the world” that lockdowns are ineffective. They remain one of the most effective non-pharmaceutical interventions. Healthy discussion continues about how this effects economies and communities. What is doubly strange about Smit’s approach here is that if masks are as useless as she claims, there is one clear alternative. The very lockdowns she also insists are useless. I doubt she is aware of this. Her approach is to attack all options, and encourage us to abandon them. She has no alternative to offer Victoria.

Stephens raises the question of people who accept the claims on the You Can Say No flyer, being fined. Smit comes back with a prompt that all the resources are on the website, and that;

If you get the flyer you really need to take that extra step to actually do the research because if, you know… know the law and you know your rights, then actually that fine is null and void and it’s actually um… it won’t mean anything.

Adam lets Monica know they’ll leave it there. Smit responds with an eager “No worries!”. Those familiar with Monica Smit might have noticed the big grin-tone in her final words. She had reason to feel smug, as Australians have every right to expect better from our national broadcaster. Smit usually only gets this much air time on Sky News. The reaction on Telegram, the favoured social media platform of COVID conspiracy theorists, was predictable. Discussion was kicked off thirty minutes later by RDA on their Telegram channel, with an announcement headed by a customised graphic.

Telegram

The first post I wrote on Monica Smit and RDA, opened with Monica Smit loves being the centre of attention. That entire topic requires a post on its own. Suffice it to say however, that certain personalities only take. They surround themselves with givers, and ruthlessly ban, delete and expunge those who challenge their bogus view of reality. The result is the unfettered pseudo-worship you see in the small sample above.

Note the suggestion from one, to “destroy those imbeciles”, in reference to Dave the shop keeper. It’s further worth noting RDA didn’t provide Adam Stephens’ interview with Dave, or the dissenting text messages. All that was known is that a shop owner was “appalled” by the flyer. Sophie, who unwittingly outed herself as a Cairns local, and likely a distributer of the flyers, decided that was enough for the destruction of “those imbeciles”.

Still no evidence

The bulk of RDA members on social media, continue to behave as if enjoying a sustained muck up day. This, however, gives an inaccurate view of the groups resources. Their recent advertising truck, growing range of merchandise, and increasingly slick video production suggests donations remain healthy. This has enabled the group to curate their campaign of alienation through misinformation. Their message is for those who prefer to be told what to think, rather than make their own conclusions. Yet this group is convinced they have discovered a unique truth that “sheeple” cannot see.

Although Smit talks of access to science that confirms the RDA position, there is none on their site. The well examined Danish study on mask wearing and transmission of SARS-CoV-2, can be accessed in favourable format. Rather than finding masks do not prevent transmission, the study failed to find, “at least a 50% protection against a SARS-CoV-2 infection given by mask wearing”, as it was designed to do. Fact Check also addressed this nine months ago. In targeting COVID-19 vaccine safety and efficacy, RDA direct readers to the tired example of the estimated study completion date, for the AstraZeneca vaccine. The actual study completion date was 5 March 2021.

Other material is presented in misleading context. Despite Smit’s claim of enabling critical thinking, visitors to the site are shown bias. There are no opportunities to compare contentious information in a critical fashion. The elephant in the room here is that all reputable evidence is against the position held by RDA. The use of “critical thinking” as a buzz term, has become almost commonplace in conspiracy theory circles. It is seemingly confused with contrariness. This is underscored by the fact that constant cries of suppressed freedom, and the exploitation of loopholes, is possible only because of our democratic rights and the legislation that protects them.

Conclusion

There’s little point rambling on much more dear reader. I’m certain the RDA site would be worthy of content analysis. A work similar to the excellent approach employed by Thomas Aechtner, in assessing the Australian Vaccination-risks Network, would be welcome.

Monica Smit is more than just dishonest. In taking advantage of a global pandemic to raise her profile and profits she has proven to be a malignant influencer. What has been demonstrated above, is that everything Monica Smit said during the interview with Adam Stephens, is demonstrably false. More to the point it has long been clear what she stands for.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation needs to be out in front of such people.


References

ABC North QLD Drive – Thursday 12 August 2021

The Lancet VOLUME 395, ISSUE 10242, P1973-1987, JUNE 27, 2020. Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19: a systematic review and meta-analysis.

Anaesthesia and Intensive Care 2001; 29: 331-338: Do Anaesthetists Need to Wear Surgical Masks in the Operating Theatre? A Literature Review with Evidence-Based Recommendations. M.W.Skinner, B.A. Sutton.

Mask Mythbusters: Common questions about kids and masks

Corona children studies “Co-Ki”: First results of a Germany-wide registry on mouth and nose covering (mask) in children – DOI: 10.21203/rs.3.rs-124394/v3

The impact of face masks on children-A mini review: PMID: 33533522 PMCID: PMC8014099 DOI: 10.1111/apa.15784

BMJ Rapid Response – Conclusions from the Danish study

Danish study doesn’t prove face masks don’t work

Why nobody will ever agree on whether COVID lockdowns were worth it – The Conversation

Reignite Democracy Australia – You Can Say No

Reignite Democracy Australia – Informed Consent

Reignite Democracy Australia – Face mask Exemptions

Updated: 19 August 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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Meryl Dorey’s latest ‘legal challenge’ fundraising scam

A recent email to members the Australian Vaccination-risks Network included a bizarre letter to the Australian Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, demanding immediate cessation of the COVID-19 vaccination programme.

It is a bizarre demand for a number of reasons, foremost being that evidence supports continuation, not cessation of the vaccine rollout. In addition is a fundamental misunderstanding of how scientific and regulatory advice ensures the most effective ministerial and government decision making. Next come the reasons for justifying these demands. All have been refuted with evidence or debunked as conspiracy theory thinking. Finally the extensive demands themselves are impossible and meaningless in scale and intent.

One claim I will address however. An AVN favourite is that the vaccine rollout is an ongoing experiment that Greg Hunt himself called the world’s largest clinical trial. Back in March we dealt with the antivax trope that the COVID-19 vaccination rollout is an uninsurable experiment set to wind up in 2023. It is demonstrable disinformation that manipulates the fact data are continually collected on drugs and vaccines after approval for use. The scale of post-approval data related to COVID-19 vaccination is vast. Enter Minister Hunt’s comments.

During an Insiders interview on 21 March this year David Speers asked a question about herd immunity and longer term goals. Greg Hunt told Speers in part;

The world is engaged in the largest clinical trial, the largest global vaccination trial ever, and we will have enormous amounts of data.

The next day during a doorstop interview a journalist asked;

Minister, when we have vaccinated the majority of the population, what does the new normal look like? Do we still have to worry about social distancing and hand sanitising with this vaccine?

Hunt replied that COVID-safe practices will be with us for a long while. Longevity of antibodies must be considered. That this is something the world will learn. And that;

We’re engaged in the world’s largest ever vaccination rollout and, at the same time, effectively, clinical trial. We will learn more; we’re already learning more.

Viewed in the context of questions he was answering it’s clear that Hunt was talking about how the vaccine will effect social activity. Not a trial of efficacy and safety as antivaxxers allege. Never has he used the word “experiment” either. Referring to Hunt in a live chat with Meryl Dorey two nights ago (Monday 28 June) anti-science crusader Senator Malcolm Roberts mentioned the Insiders episode then falsely claimed, “He himself said it’s a trial, it’s an experiment” [4min 35 mark]. In fact COVID-19 vaccine manufacturers published Phase III trial protocols more than six months before Hunt made those comments.

It is thus absurd that the AVN and others continually make this claim. It is also a predictable straw man as it provides a basis for their objection to COVID-19 vaccines. Meryl Dorey and the AVN gave Hunt seven days in which to reply. The demand states in part;

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…

If it looks like a scam…

Given the absurdity of the demands made upon Greg Hunt there is no chance of a favourable response. And this is exactly what Meryl Dorey wants. This makes way for her to announce that legal action will be pursued. Legal action that needs to be funded by AVN supporters. Financial donations to an organisation with no charitable fundraising authority are essentially free from accountability if not deemed for a charitable purpose. More so, the likelihood of successful legal action is zero. The private prosecution of a federal health minister who did not acquiesce to anti-vaccination demands is a calculated impossibility.

The chances of securing a court ordered injunction against the federal government to stop the vaccination of a nation against COVID-19 are (need I say it?) also zero. The party seeking the injunction must demonstrate they are at risk if vaccination is not prevented. As the vaccine is not mandatory and the plaintiffs have clearly stated their opposition to receiving it no risk can be demonstrated. So the AVN will claim to be defenders of Australians. They will need to demonstrate the nation is at risk if the vaccine rollout is not stopped. Again, the vaccine is not mandatory so clear evidence that the public are “guinea pigs” is lacking. If found to be in the wrong the AVN must pay the government’s damages. All this and more must be absolute before the case can go ahead.

This is without a doubt a scam to make money from pledges and donations.

The reaction from those familiar with Meryl Dorey’s money-making scams is proving prescient. Next would come an appeal for money to fund the legal action. After a time Dorey will announce that the action has no chance of succeeding after a rational (and expensive) legal team has reviewed it. The money will be kept and all too swiftly the AVN will return to the day to day business of processing membership fees and “sponsorships”.

On cue Meryl Dorey primed her audience on the morning of Thursday 24 June. The final minutes of a Facebook live video were dedicated to the announcement that the time was almost upon Minister Hunt. The AVN will need all the financial support they can get and a page will be set up for that purpose if, “our solicitors and lawyers and barristers say we are going to proceed”. It’s a performance of deception which you can access via mp3 here or listen to on the player below.

Her viewers were told over 300 Australians have died and over 30,000 have had serious reactions because of the vaccine. Dorey is doing this for you, for the Australian people who, “have a very dark future ahead”. We’re told, “tyranny and communism have descended on Australia”. Dorey twice slips up saying, “when this happens… when this goes ahead”. She knows it’s not a case of if. Thus if the AVN announce the case is going ahead, supporters must be presented with written evidence of legal advice confirming a chance of success. For as we know, Meryl Dorey has form in dangling the prospect of a legal victory in front of AVN supporters.

Previous ‘legal challenge’ fundraising scam

In 2016 the AVN, then known as the Australian Vaccination-sceptics Network, launched a similar scheme using the promise of a High Court challenge to No Jab No Pay legislation. This social services legislation amendment introduced an initiative to withhold state payments from families where children were not fully immunised. The year began with the AVN asking supporters to pledge money to fund a High Court challenge. By late March it was announced the challenge would proceed. Funding requests continued with so-called updates yet donors were kept in the dark.

Concerned donors soon suggested the AVN were being secretive as no legal team or strategy had been revealed and not one invoice for legal fees had been sighted. The AVN responded by email on 8 September 2016 saying they couldn’t show their hand because, “both the government and the pharmaceutical lobby would love to know what we are planning”. The AVN promised to reveal all when the time was right. They announced the total raised by that time was $160,000 and that double this was needed.

Three weeks later Meryl Dorey, AVN president at that time Tasha David, and another member were in the USA meeting with Del Bigtree and the Vaxxed team and protesting at a CDC rally. This trip wold have been months in the planning and was not the first for David. Two months later on Christmas day, contrary to months of published updates, donors and supporters were informed by email that the High Court case had no chance of success. Donations had continued for fifteen weeks since the $160,000 total was announced. Yet now the AVN were claiming only $152,203 was raised and $72,526 was spent on legal advice. The irregularity continued the following day when an identically worded post from Tasha David on the AVN website claimed just $50,371 was spent on legal advice.

For now, let’s work with the figures the AVN published. The pressing question is thus, will the AVN be using any of the money left over from the supposed 2016 attempted High Court challenge to fund this latest venture? Using the lower reported figure of funds raised and the highest of expenses, the least that could have been left turns out to be $79,677. That’s provided we take Meryl on her word that they actually did spend money on legal fees. The next logical question is, was any of that money later spent on antivax campaigns? It turns out that we can draw some conclusions regarding what was promised that Christmas day in 2016 and what later transpired.

Astonishingly lofty suggestions were made regarding the remaining funds. Pursue individuals in the TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration), ATAGI (Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation) or PBAC (Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee) with the tort of misfeasance in public office for “the harm they cause”. Then, that it’s far better to lobby local representatives for a possible Royal Commission into Vaccination. The purchase of advertising perhaps. Begin the process of bringing people together to conduct the much sought after vaccinated vs unvaccinated study was another suggestion. A watered down version of this last option was followed up in 2019.

On 28 February 2019 an email went out to members outlining how the AVN had donated $5,000 USD ($6,590 AU) to Dr. James Lyons-Weiler, a long standing US anti-vaccination activist. He is the CEO and president of the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge (IPAK) and a vocal supporter of Judy Wilyman. AVN supporters were directed to a GoFundMe page which unsurprisingly still exists today. The resulting “vaxxed vs unvaxxed” paper was significantly biased and had pronounced methodological flaws. The sort of thing you need your own institute to produce. You can access the paper and a thorough take-down here.

On 26 March this year another AVN email revealed what the less charitable may refer to as karma. You see dear reader, £4,000 ($7,300 AU) apparently donated by the AVN to Professor Christopher Exley in May 2019, is missing. It was to assist with his research at Keele University into the neurodegenerative effects of aluminium. This Guardian article written at the time helps to assess AVN thinking. Apparently Exley was being investigated for anti-vaccine activity. The Dean of Natural Sciences at Keele Uni had suspended his research and “disabled” his website. Exley explained there were problems “reviewing” donations and those asking for a refund had received inaccurate information from an unreliable source. The AVN are hoping for a full refund.

The two donations to anti-vaccine research total $13,890. We can also identify some advertising. In October 2018 the AVN funded a controversial billboard at Carseldine in QLD displaying the question, “Vaccinated or unvaccinated: Who is healthier?”. An AVN email sent 8 October 2018 includes their objection to a demand from two QLD MPs for it to be removed. It had also drawn the ire of the QLD health minister at the time, Steven Miles. In today’s prices the 6x3m billboard would have cost around $3,500 for the month it was on display and under $1,000 for printing and installation. Let’s say $5,000 for the billboard.

In the spirit of rounding off shall we say the two donations and the billboard cost $20,000 from the leftover High Court challenge float of $80,000 leaving a not too shabby $60,000. If we accept the second account that 2016 legal fees were just over $50,000 the remaining balance becomes $82,000. Indeed $50,371 spent on legal fees is the figure that remains on the AVN website today. Comments under the post are beyond amusing. High praise, highly curated. Donors on social media at the time were scathing. One rejected such expenses existed contending the AVN had significant pro bono support.

Again I stress that these figures are based on AVN publications and thus biased in their favour. Nonetheless no announcements specific to spending the remaining funds from 2016 have been made. Unrealised options suggested at the time focused on legal action. Well, the time has arrived. $60,000 would buy a significant amount of legal advice. So the question is where is that money and will the AVN use it in this campaign? Members have a right to know. A fundraising campaign such as that conducted in 2016 is inappropriate, irregular and unnecessary.

Speaking of questions the most pressing in relation to the 2016 High Court campaign fundraiser also needs to be asked. Did the AVN reveal the necessary information about strategy and expenses to donors as promised? The answer is no. The necessary transparency needed to confirm the AVN did what they claimed never eventuated. Thus in calculating what the available funds for legal action might be, there is in fact no reason to accept any account of the AVN. There is no evidence that any legal team existed or that a minimum of $50,000 was spent on legal fees.

The hard fact is Meryl Dorey and her team saw no reason to provide this evidence or honour the promise that all would be revealed at the right time. If there is a reason for this strange lack of transparency they have never commented on it. They were keen to explain why secrecy was needed when donations were incoming, yet silent once they put an end to the campaign. At the last the AVN claim to have raised $152,204 months after announcing $160,000 had been raised. This means after raising an average of $50,000 per month for three months they expect donors to accept they raised just over $2,000 in total over the last six months of the campaign. Despite all this it is imperative that one not fall prey to conspiracy theory thinking and conclude absolutely. Suffice it to say that what took place cannot be what the AVN reported. In an upcoming post we’ll look closer at the scale and audacity of this scam.

NSW Fair Trading Investigation

Almost certainly the reason fundraising ceased is because the AVN were advised of an upcoming NSW Fair Trading investigation into the campaign. This was reported in The Australian two days after the AVN announced an end to fundraising. Fair Trading investigations however, only consider if the campaign was a fundraising appeal for the purposes of the Charitable Fundraising Act 1991. The Inquiry Report from September 2017 states that the view of the inquiry was that it was not (see p.3) and no action was taken. However all details are far from clear in that heavily redacted document. We learn more from an August 2018 letter to AVN president Tasha David from Stephen French, Investigations Manager in the Department of Finances, Services & Innovation.

The unambiguous and firmly written letter includes;

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.

The AVsN website includes the following content that must be removed immediately.
• Lobbying Federal Parliament for changes to legislation, to educate them on this issue and to combat draconian new vaccine laws that are being brought in to Australia.

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.

This is yet another example of how Australia’s regulatory acronyms let down the public. The inquiry report also fails to mention what later correspondence clearly states. The AVN High Court fundraising campaign was in breach of the Charitable Fundraising Act 1991 but NSW Fair Trading decided against legal action. Specifically, the AVN was in breach of section 9 of the Act because their website confirmed donations would be used “to educate” members of parliament with respect to legislation regarding vaccination. Instructing the AVN to remove the offending text substantially reduces the chance that future fundraising campaigns will be in breach of this Act.

It seems we have our reasons as to why the AVN never mentioned the campaign again. It is frustrating that NSW Fair Trading have no mandate to investigate the honesty of the campaign nor report on the fate of funds raised. This was justifiably never within the scope of the inquiry. An inquiry that was in hindsight very literal and linear in action. The ACCC should have been notified but instead the AVN received a helpful warning. For those of us who value the application of legislation where scams are concerned it is a sterling example of losing in the lucky country. For AVN founder Meryl Dorey however, it was another financial win.

Meryl Dorey claims to make ‘absolutely nothing’

Perhaps now is an ideal time to revisit Ms. Dorey’s recent claim that she makes “absolutely nothing” through the AVN. In February this year Jane Hansen presented the documentary Big Shots: Anti-Vaxxers Exposed and in doing so revealed a number of disturbing truths about anti-vaccination activists in Australia. This included the AVN and Meryl. Believe it or not the High Court caper wasn’t mentioned. Shortly after, Dorey scrambled to publish a “response” which was in fact a collection of falsehoods presented as answers to leading questions posed by anti-medicine fanatic Tom Barnett. His opening question was about income. You can grab the mp3 here or listen on the player below.

Conclusion

The chance of the AVN winning legal action against Greg Hunt or the Australian government as a means to stop the COVID-19 vaccine rollout is zero. In 2016 fundraising for a similar, failed legal pursuit was conducted in a highly irregular manner. The AVN refused to reveal key information about strategy and expense. This and the failure to refund monies was reported as having “divided the anti-vaccination community”. However the increase in traffic to anti-vaccination social media since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has provided AVN founder Meryl Dorey with fresh targets to fleece.

If the AVN and supporters wish to make a statement by being publicly seen to pursue possible legal action that’s all well and jolly. Tyranny and communism may be descending but democratic freedoms are alive and well in Australia. Sadly the AVN is supported by many who believe such a case is viable. But a fundraiser is not necessary. The aim should be to discern if legal action is viable. The AVN should have remaining funds for this purpose. They also receive constant donations and sponsorships for the stated purpose of fighting for “the health rights” of Australians. Should the AVN proceed they must provide potential donors with written evidence of legal advice stating the likelihood of success.

This is about disregarding legislation and profiting from the donations of vulnerable supporters. NSW Fair Trading launched an inquiry into the 2016 fundraising campaign. In a judicious application of the Charitable Fundraising Act 1991, information on the AVN website was demonstrated to render the fundraising campaign in breach of that Act. Regrettably no action was taken. A warning with the promise to act against future unlawful fundraisers was issued. This has effectively educated Meryl Dorey in how to avoid the reach of Fair Trading. In addition to the fact there was no investigation into the misappropriation of funds Dorey’s confidence has likely risen.

Despite claiming to make “absolutely nothing” from the AVN, Meryl Dorey makes very good money. She is confident and capable in doing so by dubious means. We in turn can be confident this latest venture is a scam. As with all AVN fundraising campaigns the truth will be obfuscated and the goal will not be reached. Dorey will profit, questions will be suppressed and something else new and shiny will be promoted.

You and I dear reader, should consider reporting all scams to the ACCC. One eagerly awaits developments from the AVN bunker.


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Latest update: 1 July 2021