CoronaMyths: January 1-16

Karine Ghazaryan

Journalist, semiotician-to-be

In the first half of January, anti-vax activists engaged in the simple manipulation of official statistics, mushroom pages spread old photos with sensational headlines, and the user who doubted everything rushed to believe the Russian surgeon who spread false news.

Old or refuted news spread on mushroom pages and groups

There are many active pages and websites on the Internet and social networks, which are positioned as news but do not deal with real journalism. They do not create their own content but publish sensational, clickbait headlines to catch users’ “clicks” and make money. Media.am calls such platforms mushroom websites and mushroom pages.

In early January, a number of old or refuted pieces of news were spread in the pages of mushrooms.

🔴 A funeral photo was posted on several platforms in which people in coronavirus-specific clothing were carrying a closed coffin (example 1, example 2, example 3). The photo was spread with the caption “Shot of the day. ‘CORONA-MAGIC’ Empty coffins or the remains of an old woman.”

Despite the headline “Shot of the day,” the photo is not new, and the claim about “empty coffins” is not substantiated in any way. The photo was taken in 2020 in the cemetery of Kolpino near St. Petersburg. The photo was taken by Dmitry Lovetsky, a photographer from the Russian office of the famous Associated Press. Lovetsky took a series of photos about the coronavirus death wave in Russia. The photo series has been published in several authoritative media (example 1, example 2).

🔴 The mushroom pages also spread the claims of the American website, Newstarget, that the COVID-19 vaccines harm children (example 1, example 2, example 3). The website Newstarget has previously been in the spotlight of fact-checkers for spreading health-related misinformation.

In the publication, US President Joe Biden is called a “murderer” for calling for the vaccination of children. Moreover, the information about one million daily infections in the United States was considered “false.”

Despite these emotional labels, the figure of one million infections in the United States is real. The source of this information is the country’s official institutions and scientific institutions such as Johns Hopkins University, which since the beginning of the epidemic has become a reliable source of information not only in the United States but also in many other countries.

As for the vaccination of children, this topic was exploited not only in the mushroom pages but also in the “Anti-Epidemic Alliance” page, which presented itself as a specialized page in the field of healthcare. Despite media speculation, minors are being vaccinated in almost every country in the world, including Armenia. The World Health Organization, Johns Hopkins University, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other international organizations consider vaccines safe for children.

Anti-vax activists use social media and their own news outlets to spread myths

Former member of the Yerevan Council of Elders and anti-vaccination activist Marina Khachatryan spread a number of pieces of false information on her Facebook page and a news site affiliated with her.

🔴 Khachatryan claimed that the RA Ministry of Health was “lying” by saying that “1,660,256 people, which is 57.25% of the total population, had been vaccinated in Armenia,” because according to “international organizations” only 31% of the population in Armenia has been vaccinated.

Khachatryan’s statement is wrong: The number 1,660,256 published by the Ministry of Health is not the number of people vaccinated, but the number of vaccine doses, i.e. the total number of first and second doses administered in the country. The Ministry of Health also presented the number of people who received the first and second doses separately. People who received the first dose in early January made up about 31% of the population.

🔴 Pastark.am, which regularly provides a platform for Marina Khachatryan, published the words of the British Prime Minister that most of the patients in the intensive care unit are vaccinated with only two doses. According to the news, the Prime Minister’s words prove that the information about protecting vaccines from death and hospitalization is “just a MYTH.”

This assumption, however, was based on incomplete information. Thus, pastark.am did not mention that the vast majority of the population of Great Britain over the age of 12, 90%, received at least the first dose of the vaccine. Such a high rate of vaccination means that there is a statistically high probability that the majority of patients hospitalized will be vaccinated. The website also does not mention that the number of hospitalizations in Great Britain has decreased in general.

🔴 Another anti-vax activist, Dmitri Harutyunyan, claimed that the number of heart attacks has increased among professional football players. According to Harutyunyan, they are connected with vaccinations, as they took place at the same time as the vaccination of the population.

No scientific research, however, has found such a connection. Moreover, Harutyunyan’s assumption is based on correlation. According to him, if two events took place at the same time, then they are connected with each other. However, the time coincidence did not show any causal link: two phenomena may take place at the same time but not be related to each other.

Myths on the one hand, business on the other

Hrayr Kostanyan, a Facebook user who advocates conspiracy theories, posted a video of Russian surgeon Vladislav Shafalinov claiming that vaccines cause infertility in men. The claim of infertility is one of the most common myths about the COVID-19 vaccines. Scientists believe that vaccines do not affect the reproductive health of men (and women), while the disease itself can have consequences on men’s sexual health.

Dr. Shafalinov is active in social networks and the press: He opposes vaccines, and considers the coronavirus to be a “global hoax.”

Despite all this, the BBC found out that Shafalinov owns a medical service in Moscow, which offers paid hospitalization to patients with coronavirus. Coronavirus treatment in Russia is officially free. The minimum cost of Shafalinov’s service is 450,000 rubles (about $6,000).

Fact-checking journalists have covered Shafalinov’s manipulative allegations.

Karine Ghazaryan

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