A Trove of Intelligence Reports Reveal New York’s Fight Against Vaccine Disinformation

For nearly a year now, a small team of officials from City Hall and the public health department have pored over detailed reports about how vaccine misinformation has spread through New York City.

A review of over eight months worth of these “misinformation bulletins” obtained by The Times reveals that the city has collected exhaustive intelligence about the misunderstandings and conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19 and swirling through the five boroughs. The project aimed to help tailor Covid-19 vaccine drives to New York’s diverse and sometimes insular communities and beat back the virus to push the city toward normalcy.

The misinformation reports — the vast majority of which come from public social media posts — also offer a fascinating historical accounting: a glimpse into what New Yorkers were reading, watching and at times misunderstanding about the disease that upended their city.

Overall, the effort is a case study in what effective city government can do, and what public health demands in 2021.

The reports were only necessary because not everyone has been rooting for the coronavirus to lose.

In January and February of this year, the city found leaflets aimed at the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn that wrongly suggested the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines could change a person’s DNA and were only 0.5 percent effective.

In March, the city’s Polish community was treated to false claims that the mRNA vaccines were designed to “annihilate Christianity and the Polish Nation.” A city report in March described a rumor prevalent in New York’s Haitian neighborhoods that the vaccines were created to reduce the Black population.

In July, the project’s analysts were monitoring vaccine misinformation being shared by the writer Alex Berenson, a former New York Times employee. In August, the analysts made note of “misleading” claims by Oren Barzilay, who heads the union representing the Fire Department’s emergency medical workers.

Each of these bits of misinformation was reported to the city’s Vaccine Command Center, a high-level group at City Hall created to help oversee New York’s vaccination drive.

For almost a year now, the Vaccine Command Center has commissioned regular reports on such misinformation. The intelligence in the reports is compiled by a team of about 15 people inside the city health department, a handful of other city officials and the research firm GroupSense. The reports are then given to city officials involved in New York’s vaccination effort.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s spokesperson, Danielle Filson, said the city undertook the project because “understanding the specifics of myths is critical to dispelling them and educating the public with facts grounded in scientific reality.”

“New Yorkers deserve to know the truth and when it comes to matters as high-stakes as the vaccine — it’s our moral imperative to make sure they have it,” Ms. Filson wrote to me in an email.

City officials are tailoring their outreach to address the specific misinformation or conspiracy theories circulating in particular communities.Credit…Joshua Bright for The New York Times

Some reports suggest that some of the anti-vaccine activity spotted online had roots in disinformation campaigns that were linked to the Russian government. On June 8, GroupSense analysts said they agreed with the assessment of another research firm, known as Graphika, that an anti-vaccine cartoon posted to a website devoted to promoting far-right conspiracy theories was “consistent with a pro-Russian disinformation campaign.” That campaign was attributed to people linked to the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency.

The effort has identified conspiracy theories in at least a dozen languages, from Spanish to Urdu. Among the spookiest lies: Vaccinated people have developed boils; vaccines magnetize the body; “deep state operatives” developed the vaccines together with the military. All nonsense.

The reports, which have not been made public, draw a distinction between misinformation — the unintentional spreading of inaccurate information — and disinformation, which is not only inaccurate but likely malicious.

Some reports raise privacy concerns, or at least questions about whether an effort like this should have independent oversight of some kind. For instance, one bulletin in June noted that an attorney at a New York anti-vaccine group that promotes the conspiracy theory that Covid-19 is a hoax had attended a protest rally on May 21 of this year in Manhattan’s Foley Square. The bulletin named the attorney.

City officials monitoring citizens engaged in legally protected gatherings is a tricky matter, particularly in a city that for years allowed its Police Department to spy on Muslim communities and keep a rolling database of almost entirely innocent citizens, overwhelmingly Black men.

But Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said the work done by health officials around misinformation seems far less problematic because, among other reasons, the effort is using publicly available information to educate the public, rather than to infiltrate and target specific communities for law enforcement actions. “Context and purpose make all the difference in the world,” she said.

For the most part, the reports aren’t focused on individual people. And city officials have apparently used the intelligence astutely so far to help shape New York’s vaccination campaign, customizing their outreach to address the specific misinformation or conspiracy theories circulating in particular communities.

In January, the analysts of the Vaccine Command Center alerted city officials when a widely circulated WhatsApp message wrongly led thousands of New Yorkers to believe that the Brooklyn Army Terminal vaccination site had a large sum of extra doses, sparking a rush on the facility.

In Hasidic areas of Brooklyn, city officials said they learned through the misinformation reports that antibody testing was being misused to determine who needed to get vaccinated. Department of Health officials worked with community liaisons to try to correct that misunderstanding.

The intelligence in the bulletins has also informed the work of health department ad buys, canvassers who distribute literature about vaccines on street corners and city workers who make phone calls encouraging older New Yorkers to get vaccinated.

When analysts found that many people in Brooklyn’s Caribbean communities wrongly believed the vaccines caused infertility, city officials were able to act, addressing those fears in town halls, telephone calls and houses of worship within those communities. That’s sharp thinking from New York’s “deep state” — or, as they’re called in the real world, public servants.

Though the success of the misinformation monitoring is hard to assess, city officials believe it had an impact. Between June 14 and July 31, vaccination rates in ZIP codes that the campaign targeted in the Caribbean American campaign increased by 15 percent among Black residents, according to city officials, modestly better than the 11 percent citywide increase.

There are limits to what city governments can do, especially since, as the reports make clear, the role of right-wing media and social media companies in spreading misinformation is extensive. That includes mainstream platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WhatsApp.

In July, city health department officials sent a letter to Facebook and Twitter urging the companies to “take immediate action” to remove such content from their platforms. Health department officials said Facebook didn’t respond. They said they are in the process of scheduling a phone conversation with Twitter executives to address their concerns. Nobody I’ve spoken to in city government is holding their breath.

With the flow of disinformation only growing, the best that city officials can hope for is to better understand what they’re up against.

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