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CNN. ABC News. The New York Times. Fox News.
Those are the publishers of four of the five most popular Facebook posts of articles about the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine this week. They’re ranked 2 to 5 in total interactions, according to data from the tracking tool CrowdTangle.
The No. 1 posting, however, isn’t from a news organization. Or a government official. Or a public health expert.
The most popular link on Facebook about the Johnson & Johnson news was shared by a conspiracy theorist and self-described “news analyst & hip-hop artist” named An0maly who thinks the pandemic is a cover for government control.
It’s a stark example of what experts warn could be a coming deluge of false or misleading information related to the one-shot vaccine.
In the case of the post by An0maly, a Facebook representative said the company has taken action against previous posts of his that have broken the social media platform’s rules. It broadly removed more than 16 million pieces of content over the past year related to COVID-19 misinformation, but because this specific post did not contain any factually incorrect information, it would stay up.
Experts call this sort of tactic gray area misinformation and said it can have the same impact on an audience as blatant falsehoods when it’s being received without proper context or by people with preconceived ideas.
When most Americans went to bed Monday evening, the news about COVID-19 vaccinations in the U.S. was overwhelmingly positive: The average number of shots administered per day was well over 3 million, leading to rosy predictions that pandemic restrictions could ease in the coming months and some semblance of normalcy could return.
But that story shifted on Tuesday after federal health officials recommended a temporary halt in the use of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine after a handful of reports about blood clots surfaced among the millions who have received the shot.
Many doctors argue this sort of delay should be seen as a positive for vaccine safety: Officials are paying close attention to the reports of side effects and acting quickly to maintain public confidence in the vaccination effort.
But experts who follow Internet trends are bracing for the worst when it comes to how this news is understood and received by the public.
“This is what I would call the perfect storm for misinformation,” said Jennifer Granston at Zignal Labs, a media intelligence platform.
Millions of Americans were already skeptical of the vaccines before the Johnson & Johnson news, and a vast online network exists to feed that skepticism with bad information and conspiracy theories.
That network went into action almost immediately after the pause in vaccinations was announced.
Robert Kennedy Jr., who is considered one of the top spreaders of vaccine misinformation in the U.S., posted the news to his 230,000 Facebook followers.
Rizza Islam, another prominent promoter of vaccine hesitancy, especially within the Black community, tweeted conspiracy theories about the Johnson & Johnson news to his 54,000 followers on Twitter. (Islam was recently removed from Facebook.)
Even some state lawmakers used the news to imply vaccines aren’t safe. One Pennsylvania state legislator, Rep. Rob Kauffman, posted to his 13,700 Facebook followers that “we don’t fully understand these vaccines.”
A trending topic means opportunity
In most cases, the social media companies say they can’t do much to respond in cases such as this, since people largely are sharing articles based on factual information, even if the commentary and subtext around the posting is meant to further false ideas.
“It’s a really insidious problem,” said Deen Freelon, a communications professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in an interview with NPR last month. “The social media companies have taken a hard line against disinformation; they have not taken a similarly hard line against fallacies.”
Many anti-vaccine activists have adopted this tactic as a way of getting around social media networks’ policies designed to halt the spread of false information.
An0maly, the influencer with the widely shared posting about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, shared a CNN story with a misleading caption to his 1.5 million Facebook followers.
“The issue is this is a factual report,” said Sarah Roberts, an information studies professor at UCLA. “But the people reading the report either have such deeply held preconceived notions about its meaning or they lack appropriate context to receive the information.”
Overall, it’s hard to overstate the degree to which the Johnson & Johnson story blew up online.
The company was getting as many mentions online every hour Tuesday as it had during entire weeks before the news, according to data from Zignal.
Much of those mentions were not in reference to misinformation, but Zignal’s Granston said anytime interest in a topic spikes like that online, especially with a polarizing subject such as vaccines, it provides a ripe environment for misinformation as well.
“These big conversations provide this huge platform for people to further a specific agenda around this information,” she said.
The Johnson & Johnson pause is also fertile ground for conspiracies because it is a developing topic with a number of unanswered questions.
Often, misinformation peddlers with a specific agenda will fill in knowledge gaps with false information, knowing people are desperate for any information at all.
“It’s supply and demand,” said Keenan Chen, a disinformation researcher at the nonprofit First Draft News.
Because health officials are still investigating the clotting issue, and determining guidance about the vaccine, there isn’t much trustworthy information the government or credible outlets can provide to fill that void.
UCLA’s Roberts said the problem is further exacerbated because the country has become so divided over the pandemic in general.
Former President Donald Trump primed a portion of the country over the past few years to be skeptical of official sources of science information, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. On Tuesday, he released a statement that included a false conspiracy theory about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, claiming without evidence the decision was made to benefit rival drugmakers.
Now, Roberts said, whenever the CDC comes out with guidance about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, health officials will be fighting ingrained doubts.
“Every time there’s going to be a new bit of negative [vaccine] information or circumstances that sow doubt, it’s like we’re caught on the back foot and we have to come together again and push forward,” Roberts said. “To call that an uphill battle … I mean it’s like a Mount Everest-sized battle. Uphill seems like an understatement.”
Even after that guidance does come out, which officials said they hope will be in a matter of days, it’s likely this development has ripple effects, especially driven by those who have made fear a business model and built their brands on vaccine skepticism.
First Draft’s Chen noted that many of the actors who push vaccine disinformation also pushed election-related disinformation last fall and disinformation about other aspects of the pandemic.
“[For] the group of people whose business is about growing their audience on social media, and they monetize it, it’s very easy for me to imagine that they would keep pushing this narrative, that they would come back and point to this pause,” Chen said. “It would be hard for me to imagine that they would just stop — that they would just give up.”