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.
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.
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 offence7.1 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
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”.
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 onA Current Affair defending the actions of AndrewArnold 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 Postreported 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 publishedChiropractors 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 inThe Atlanta Journal-Constitution after posting a story from the antivax disinformation mill Children’s Health Defense on a purported COVID-19 vaccine death.
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 publishedSuspended 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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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 onThe 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.
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 underHow 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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
The present pandemic Australia is experiencing, and successfully managing to the envy of much of the world, has given attention seekers like Smit a spotlight they could previously only dream of. She clearly has no problem denying the scientific evidence and the necessary reality of COVID-19. Rather, Smit sees it as a tool to manipulate the gullible and those already tuned to conspiracy theories to further her own aims.
The COVID opportunity wasn’t lost on other conspiracy theorists around the world, particularly anti-vaccination lobbyists. As Vaxxed producer and CEO of the Informed Consent Action Network, Del Bigtree boasted last year the pandemic was “a dream come true”. It was to be capitalised upon. It was an opportunity to “get people to wake up”. In practice what this really means is convincing people that they have been asleep. A task that became easier when COVID lockdowns and restrictions yielded an attentive social media audience.
Smit’s attention-seeking includes an attempt to get a spot on Australian Survivor in 2017. The audition video is an interesting clip and Smit tells us that, “my willpower will definitely put up a very good fight” to scenes of her balancing on one leg (see below). Monica Smit has demonstrated her will power through the establishment of Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA), a $1 company of which she is the only director and sole shareholder. RDA has over 50,000 supporters with strong wellness, anti-vaccine and conspiracy beliefs.
Smit has also displayed unique energy in her willingness to jump onto any conspiracy theory that is popular amongst anti-lockdown protesters. Her website tells visitors that RDA is a political movement*, not a political party. It’s a clever line. Particularly if hiding your allegiance to political connections. The site also offers a discredited study disputing the efficacy of masks and the now worn out anti-vaccine trope that PCR tests are oversensitive and thus COVID-19 cases are false positives. She would reject conspiracy theory labels and does reject being anti-vaccine.
Smit is attempting a unique balancing act in protesting the anti-vaccine label. In a video on her RDA website today she offered a “recap” of yesterday’s protest at the office of Federal Health Minister, Greg Hunt.
Despite the presence of anti-vaccine protestors, signage and rhetoric Smit rejected media reports of an anti-vaxxer presence and maintained she was “about informed consent”, the standard anti-vaxxer catch cry.
Monica Smit is, unsurprisingly, hard to get a handle on. She can be found online as a freelance journalist, although as we’ll see, this is a role she has apparently abandoned. That site is now focused on attacking Dan Andrews and massaging the fears that link COVID public health measures to an impending death of democracy. The site hosts Smit’s articles covering a range of topics from around the world. Despite claiming she will “only work with positive endings” she manages to find negative subject matter. Caps lock and repeated exclamation marks abound.
She also describes herself as a “Catholic pilgrim”. Following the Journalism menu to Catholic one finds a Regina Coeli Report in PDF featuring an interview with Smit on pilgrimages. Smit talks about God, the devil and evil. She references the fight for the Catholic faith and getting a “clear response from God to my efforts” for which she “wept out loud with joy”. Asked what she would say to convince someone to go on a pilgrimage she answered.
You won’t regret it I promise! Just turn up and God will do the rest! You’ll see!
She would be just perfect for the emerging far right in the Victorian (and Australian) Liberal Party. As she bellowed at a rapturous crowd in Melbourne last weekend the fight she is leading against Bill Gates, Anthony Fauci, Scott Morrison and Dan Andrews is one, “between good and evil and we are the good and good always prevails”. Smit maintains she is independent. Not affiliated with any political party.
Smit’s involvement in attacks on Victorian premier Dan Andrews goes back at least to working for online group Victoria Forward. The group hides its allegiance to the Victorian Liberals claiming to be “bipartisan”. The main identity is Facebook-friendly teen Edward Bourke. As reported byGizmodo Australia Bourke started work as Male Vice-Chair at the Sunbury branch of Victorian Liberals in December 2019. It was one month before Victoria Forward emerged. Bourke is a firm Trump supporter who is proud of his plan to “import US political culture” starting with the launch of Victoria Forward.
In May last year Monica Smit worked with another apparent freelance journalist Stephanie Bastiaan in video production for Victoria Forward. Bastiaan, a member of the Victorian Liberal Party, is co-administrator of Victoria Forward’s Facebook page. Bastiaan is an integral part of the party’s conservative faction associated with branch stacking last year. She is the wife of Marcus Bastiaan who resigned from the Victorian Liberal Party in August last year due to the same branch stacking revelations.
Victoria Forward is anti-Dan Andrews and has capitalised on political sore spots for the Andrews’ government. Anti-lockdown sentiment, the Belt and Road agreement with China, volunteer firefighters and the unfortunate but necessary brumby cull. Opposing the last issue found support from another anti-Dan Andrews group Project Rural which has close links to Victoria Forward. Another website has put time and energy into fighting the Andrews’ government’s planned brumby cull. That of Monica Smit “freelance journalist”, which includes images and the article Racing to save last descendants of WWI ‘waler’ brumbies. Smit and Stephanie Bastiaan were praised for their efforts defending the brumby by member for Western Victoria, Bev McArthur of the Victorian Liberal Party.
Monica Smit is also a darling of Sky News. She was interviewed in October last year during her stint on the Let Us Work bus with the “Sack Andrews” hashtag. With what would become a tactic of Smits during arguments with police at anti-lockdown protests she used her apparent status as a journalist to shirk social distancing restrictions. The bus was the idea of Laurie Pincini, of Rockleigh Tours and the sign was courtesy of another small businessman. Both had lost their businesses to the lockdown impact on movement and Smit used their situation to her advantage. Alan Jones on Sky interviewed Smit after the Stop the sale of Victoria rally last November.
Smit kept drawing attention over 2020 and into 2021. She would attend protests and have herself filmed arguing with police over her right not to wear a mask, because she was a journalist. As noted above yesterday she was vocal at a protest outside the office of Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt. Channel 7 reported on the event. In one bizarre post on the RDA site today is a screenshot of her message that, “It WASN’T and (sic) anti-vax protest just FYI”. In the shot is an image of a woman holding a sign that reads, “It’s a DNA altering poison to change who you are!”.
Her most compelling performance was last Saturday February 20th in the Botanic Gardens Melbourne. The much promoted Millions March Against Mandatory Vaccination. Immediately before she spoke, some organisers appeared to be trying to get the crowd to stay in groups and maintain some semblance of social distancing. Smit jumped onto the podium, grabbed the microphone from the speaker and yelled, “Do what ya want, awright!”, to rousing cheers. [Video: see 1min 15]
Then Smit almost screams, “We are coming!”. More cheers. She puts on a pair of gloves promising it will make sense. She went on to yell that the door that closed was Gates, Fauci, Morrison and Andrews. The window that opened was them. Cheers. The people around are fighting for your future, your children’s future the crowd was told. They would die for this country. Louder cheers. They had tried to do the right thing. Wrote petitions. Nobody opened the email. She stamps her foot, not for the first time. “Guess what? We’re coming for all the marginal seats”, Smit managed to loudly sneer leaning forward jutting out her chin.
She was in her element. Attention, glorious attention. Stuff Australian Survivor. They would never get cheers like this. She goes on firing up the crowd with promised threats to governments, Federal and State. A monster has been awakened and the fire in its belly is so bright it can’t be put out, she yells. “Guess what? We have God on our side… this is a battle between good and evil…”. She continued on leaving no doubt that her plan is revenge through political victory. Anyone who knows her, the crowd was told, would know she has been towing the line, she’s been a reporter (self-appointed freelance journalist), doing everything right. “Well guess what? The gloves are coming off”. She pulls her gloves off and throws them down. Then finishes with another, “We are coming!”. Chants of “Moni-Ka, Moni-Ka” followed.
You can also check Monica Smit’s performance by audio here [MP3 5MB] or listen below. After Smit is a few seconds of the angry crowd chanting at police, “Free Australia, freedom, freedom”. There were twenty arrests.
It was a well planned speech. Monica Smit has no doubt what her next move is. Exactly who she may have offering or even giving support is not clear. Past form would suggest conservative factions of the Victorian Liberal Party. Yet Smit’s conduct would almost convince that she is striving to be an independent liberal. Reality says she will be a conservative. Her attacks on the Morrison government serve to create the impression she has no time for a coalition government and perhaps the Liberal Party.
But impressions can be deceiving. Monica Smit can be deceiving and is likely deceiving her supporters. Time will tell if she has truly abandoned Victorian Liberals. At one point Smit yelled that the most dangerous thing was a person with nothing left to lose. She blamed the government/s for this. The scale of selfishness and recklessness at play in exploiting public health measures necessary in a pandemic, can’t be overestimated. Little wonder there were twenty arrests.
A pressing issue in this light is the growing protest movement and the rise in anti-vaccination traffic on social media. It is concerning that there is little doubt such protests will continue. I recently mused in a comment about this so-called mandatory vaccination march. What fascinates me is that this is going on in the wake of the severe oppression and jailing of Hong Kong protestors who dared publicly say, “Independence for Hong Kong”. At the same time as Myanmar is experiencing a military coup and suppression of democracy. The same time as the actual dictator (not Dan Andrews) Alexandar Lukashenko, crushes anyone who dares object to him stealing the most recent Belarusian presidential election. At the same time as Putin jails many who gather to vocally support opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Who himself was jailed in a penal camp for breaching conditions of a suspended sentence.
It goes to show what a secure and fair democracy Australia is when the utter vacuum of any need to protest leads to the invention of faux suppression. So the privileged bored can role play. COVID-19 vaccines are not mandatory. Nor are they ‘experimental’. But more so, we know much of the anti-vaccine, anti-COVID measures and conspiracy theories have been generated by Russian trolls and bots [BMJ]. So how does Australia treat ex-pat Putin loyalists who regard us as a USA puppet and Western “enemy”? It lets them protest and say whatever they like. To even counter-rally against Ukrainians who are also rallying for their own cause to be independent from Putin’s Russia. Because that’s what this county allows. Democracy.
I imagine protestors will continue to enjoy this game. To pretend their rights are being taken away. To act as if they can’t refuse the vaccine. Pretend vaccines don’t work but instead cause widespread injury. Gather absurd information from social media and accept it as truth. Become hysterical about the Nuremberg code and argue their rights are breached, which they aren’t. Praise the scam artists profiting from their gullibility. Never question how full-time anti-vaxxers – white, financially comfortable and safe, support themselves. Pay no attention to the genuinely oppressed in the world, unless they want to liken their pretend oppression to real suffering.
Australia and its democracy may not be perfect but it has given rise to the bizarre symptom that is faux suppression – the pathetic, selfish obsession with fantasy. These protestors are without a doubt a malignancy born from democratic values. If they can not only invent suppression but afford (financially and socially) to role play as if it were real, no matter what the health cost to the society that props them up, then they certainly live in one of the greatest nations on the planet.
Australia has flaws of course, and our government is far from perfect. But the purported reignited democracy from the likes of Monica Smit who has inane support from the likes of Bernie Finn and Craig Kelly would be truly horrifying.
Well guess what? Reignite Democracy Australia is not coming with anything Australia needs.
* 4 September 2021 – The site now describes RDA as “An advocacy group and aspiring media outlet.”.
On a rather recent January 13th the Australian Vaccination-risks Network announced its partial departure from Facebook. Only weekly videos of Meryl Dorey’s Under The Wire show and Facebook-live videos will continue.
By member email, and more fittingly by Facebook post, distraught followers and amused critics were confronted with this graphic and informed;
The AVN Committee has made the decision not to remain on Facebook where we are already shadow-banned and suppressed for sharing factual, referenced information on the harms and ineffectiveness inherent in our one-size-fits-all vaccination program. We cannot support a platform that is so blatant about silencing us and so many others.
Yes. There is a lot of wrong packed into that short paragraph. Perhaps the mid-section is the most compelling. This blog is one of many that counter so-called “factual, referenced information” from the AVN and the contention that vaccination programmes are harmful and ineffective. The “one-size-fits-all” anti-vaccine mantra has become standard in recent years, finding a place amongst CBS News’ 10 deadly myths about childhood vaccines. The US site Vaxopedia comprehensively addresses this claim.
This was pushed by Judy Wilyman in her 2015 PhD thesis. The term features on four pages and receives much attention as supposed support for her claim that genetic diversity renders immunisation programmes ineffective and dangerous. It also features on her website. This towering failure to grasp immunology rests upon her exploitation of a 70 year old quote from Sir Frank Macfarlane Burnet. I touched on this in 2012 and in the previous post referred to Wilyman’s most recent publication which again presents this contention. Australia’s National Immunisation Programme is not “one size fits all”. It is a diverse programme targetting specific needs.
Back to the paragraph of wrong. It finishes by stating the AVN can’t “support” Facebook because it is so blatant about “silencing” them and others. This is all very dramatic and as I will explore part of an attempt by the AVN to big-note themselves as a radical right wing threat to social media. One must remember that at no time in their history of “supporting” Facebook has the AVN page been temporarily suspended. It’s fascinating timing that whilst writing today I scrolled to a video announcing that Dorey has been suspended from the AVN Facebook page for 30 days. I’m unaware as to why and her most recent Under The Wire (UTW) videos remain on the page.
♦︎ Update 4 Feb. 2021 – see below.
AVN founder Meryl Dorey and president Aneeta Hafemeister have constantly peddled the line that they may be deplatformed at any time due to warnings from Facebook. In fact in a 31 May 2020 Facebook live video Hafemeister observed that Facebook got “snarky” because they had “shared about the [anti 5G] picnics”. So radical was this that she didn’t know if they’d get any more warnings. You may grab the MP3 here [300KB] or listen below.
Aneeta Hafemeister tells listeners AVN could be banned from Facebook, 7 1/2 months before they voluntarily leave… somewhat.
So this leaves us with the claim they were already “shadow banned and suppressed”. We can dispense with the claim of suppression immediately. The AVN has had nothing more than fact-checked posts to deal with. These are greyed out and state False Information: checked by independent fact-checkers, giving the reader pause before proceeding. The AVN once observed that such censoring revealed the importance of the information. Shadow banning involves quietly blocking posts or comments such that members aren’t aware of the ban. This hasn’t happened either. Although the claim being made seemed to be about notifications of posts. They claimed followers could not find them or see notifications.
I’m not sure how this was determined as some commenters confirmed they had the page marked and missed nothing. None agreed they were suddenly not being notified. The lie, as it turned out to be, was revealed the following Saturday when Dorey’s show attracted a larger than normal audience. To date there have been over 800 shares and over 500 comments. The next show managed 470 comments. A recent video by Hafemeister managed 300 shares and 424 comments. To top it off she talked about the spike in numbers visiting the AVN page. Topping that off is that live videos will include interviews from the Vaxxed II bus which can number several per day.
So. Why the pretence? Both Dorey and Hafemeister are unashamed conspiracy theorists and seemingly seek the attention presently given to right wing extremists. Having retained US citizenship, Dorey is a Trump devotee and proudly voted for him. I will stress they are not active extremists but do crave an anti-authoritarian image. In today’s social media environment that means wandering into areas of the far right. They are anti-government mainly in thought, sticking to large, safe gatherings and protesting against soft, even meaningless and imagined “suppression”. Like all anti-vaxxers COVID-19, 5G, lockdowns and then the COVID vaccines gave them the chance to play rebel and increase their following without facing up to the reality that they in turn were a means for others and not a solution.
They have both revelled in the thrill of being taken seriously whilst ignoring the inescapable adage that nothing is forever. From Hafemeister gushing about “We are not government property” painted on the Vaxxed II bus to Dorey’s frenetic rants about fascist dictators that I posted in The Hill We Die On, they have laid a rebellious veneer over the anti-vaccine reality. The opening slug of that post quoted Dorey as follows;
When the police were in Ballina and they were telling us we had to move… I called Aneeta who’s the president of the AVN and I explained to her what the situation was… and she said ‘this is the hill we die on’. And that’s what I think too. We can’t be pushed any further, we just can’t. [..] I did not move here to live in a dictatorship… I will live in a free country or I will die.
The audio of Dorey in the post contains far more intense pseudo-revolutionary, anti-government ranting than the above. Hafemeister’s live videos are filled with “we the people” rhetoric mocking government health policy. A rhetoric that consistently pushes the fallacy of a vaccine injury epidemic that the AVN works against “the system” to solve. In truth both these women are secure white upper middle class individuals with very comfortable, entitled, privileged lives. It’s this very privilege and comfort that allows them to invent and internalise huge problems that don’t exist. Their present lives are spent in elaborate role play.
This was confirmed a number of times during last year’s Vaxxed II bus tour. Despite promises to metaphorically storm the Bastille, and literally die or be free Dorey and Hafemeister meekly complied with requests to move their elaborate show elsewhere. Without exception. Without as much as a shaken fist. The promised revolution shrivelled to behind keyboard attacks on Lord Mayors, councillors and business owners who had dared “suppress” them. AVN members were and are constantly exploited in these endeavours. They are fed contact details of targets and often provided with a template response. Abusive tweets and sabotage of Facebook pages is the norm. Accepting that these responses are excessive is not something the AVN does.
All of this rhetoric, posturing and role playing helps us grasp why the AVN announced its departure from Facebook at the time they did and in the way they did. It was just over a week since the riot and breach of the US Capitol [Wikipedia]. Significant changes had occurred on Twitter and Facebook with Trump’s accounts being permanently suspended and his violent followers being banned. The right wing extremist and fascist hosting platform Parler had been dumped from app stores and deleted from Amazon. It has not yet returned. Much to their frustration the AVN was left happily unmolested. Even Dorey’s very pro Trump “they-stole-the-election” Twitter feed was untouched. When it comes to anti-authoritarianism they just ‘aint bad enough to be Zucked permanently. If they weren’t going to be pushed they could always jump. So they did.
It was the ideal time to leave. They could seize upon the energy following the banning of dangerous accounts and important identities. For bad ass anti-vax revolutionaries it isn’t just what you leave but where you go that matters. The AVN announcement offered a list of alternatives where they would set up shop. These were Telegram, Parler, Gab, MeWe, Brighteon Social and Twitter with videos being posted at YouTube, Brighteon, Bitchute and Rumble. Most of these groups will permit unchallenged falsehoods to be published as “news” and “fact” under the guise of “freedom of speech”. Compare this rubbish from AVN’s Gab page (vaccine kills 24) with the actual reports (COVID kills 24). One can plainly see why fact checking and mainstream media don’t fit their plans.
One wonders at the wisdom of six different social media platforms and four video sites. It’s excessive but these platforms offer the AVN more exposure, potentially more recruits and thus more members. They seem to be settling in to Telegram and Gab (using their past name Australian Vaccination Network), the latter accomodating large numbers of Trump supporters. Gab is similar to Parler in that it is a haven for right wing extremism and hate speech. It was dumped by GoDaddy in late October 2018 after a member was involved in a synagogue shooting. The domain was then registered by Epik. It has been reported that Gab now rents server hardware.
The AVN’s Twitter and Parler accounts are unique to the group whilst Meryl Dorey also has Parler, Twitter and Facebook accounts. These accounts provide insight into how genuine the move from Facebook may be. On 25 September 2020 on what is the AVN Twitter account they announced;
The AVN has just set up a page on [Brighteon]. If you can join us there, it means that we can actually leave Facebook and its censorship, far, far behind! Please share this link as widely as you can too. Show Zuckerberg hs is very replaceable! [Screenshot]
Then on 5 December 2020 Dorey announced (left) she was leaving her personal Facebook account for Parler. She was tired of “the censorship, the abuse from FaceBook itself and the constant fact-less checks”.
Meryl would no longer be posting or responding to anything on Facebook. However she was back in four weeks by 1 January 2021 – before Parler was deplatformed. Indeed a quick check confirms she was “responding” to another commenter on her page earlier today. The post to the left has been deleted.
Meryl Dorey is still the face of AVN and wears whatever colours seem to get the attention she desires. COVID-19 is a hoax, a ‘scamdemic’ perpetrated by governments to enable control of the population. Yet she is an adamant supporter of hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19 and those right wing commentators who claim it is being suppressed. Her Twitter profile (@nocompulsoryvac) features a photo of Donald Trump and she tweets and retweets in support of the notion the US election was stolen. She supports COVID conspiracist, Dr. Simone Gold and posts common themes of COVID misinformation. Some of her tweets are in the slide show below. The same themes featured in Parler in December 2020 and continue on the AVN’s current Twitter account and Dorey’s personal Facebook page. The image from Gab would have been promptly fact-checked on Facebook.
By quitting Facebook with as much fanfare as possible the AVN can associate itself with genuine anti-government forces on social media. Aneeta Hafemeister and particularly Meryl Dorey can envelope themselves in a controversy that is not of their making and has zero to do with them. In time their narrative can bend to accomodate claims that they, and many others, were forced to leave Facebook at the time of the US Capitol riots. In the case of the AVN they will now claim they were forced to make the choice.
The reality is that the COVID-19 pandemic drew unforeseen attention and numbers to the anti-vax cause. Anti-vaccine media coverage increased by 900% from March to May 2020. It is highly unlikely anything like this will be repeated although it is also a wave with ongoing energy. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the Trump election fiasco and the US Capitol riot have continued to motivate a disparate conspiracy-loving demographic. Nonetheless the AVN had begun to witness a decrease in Facebook attendance which they blamed on supposed censorship.
Both Hafemeister and Dorey have easily embraced unrelated dynamics to fit their role play. The impetus for the changes in social media were unmistakably due to events that occurred in Washington D.C. and had the specific aim of restricting organised and potentially violent episodes on behalf of Donald Trump and his claim of election fraud. For Meryl Dorey however the issue was the need to be a source of vaccine and medical information. For both, it’s an opportunity to exploit AVN members and perhaps turn the events to their own profit.
In the audio outtakes below from UTW 16 January 2021 we hear Dorey open by telling viewers that;
Here in our bunker we are on a war footing and that is only a slight overstatement because actually the entire world of social media, most governments and certainly the medical community and the media are at war with the truth. So we are your home at the present time, while we’re allowed to be, for the truth about vaccines and medical practices that you need to be aware of.
Nonetheless, it’s now time to say goodbye from the bunker. You can download the MP3 here [1.5MB] or listen below to farewell AVN’s Facebook days… sort of.
An unedited 5 1/2 min from the opening is available here [4.6MB] for those interested in the unblemished truth from which the outtakes above are taken. It does offer insight into how Meryl tries to convince members to cancel any Amazon subscriptions, as she did, because she can’t abide censorship. She’s not going to tell them what to do but if they’re Amazon subscribers they might want to consider doing the same sort of thing. Subtle.
One awaits further AVN social media developments with interest.
♦︎ 8:00 PM 4 February 2021: AVN publish newsletter stating the 30 day ban was due to the most recent UTW episode of 30 January 2021 which is still available on the Facebook page.