Pinocchio Would Be Proud: The Growing Tide of Vaccine Myths and Other Scam Science

Social media is a significant purveyor of health misinformation (including outright falsehoods), seeded and fertilized by celebrity know-nothings and a handful of contrarian physicians, and abetted by disreputable organizations with legitimate-sounding names. One recent scam misreports an American Heart Association (AHA) study, falsely claiming that the COVID vaccine is tied to heart defects. However, the dangers of misinformation aren’t limited to vaccines and haven’t stopped with diminished vaccine uptake.
Generated by ChatGPTv.4

A pack of lies

Some “sham science” claims are simply absurd – for example, a May 31 tweet on X by “the Big Idea Speakers Bureau” (with over 9,000 followers) proclaimed: 

“If only people would research germ theory. It's not hard. There are dozens of books, videos, papers, all proving there are no such [things] as pathogenic viruses.” 

No pathogenic viruses? That should surprise the countless people who have suffered from viral infections like influenza, chickenpox, measles, hepatitis, herpes, shingles, COVID-19, etc. (let alone the history of polio and smallpox).

The range of sham science propagated about COVID vaccines, in particular, is astounding. This campaign (and it is nothing less than a concerted, organized effort) is sophisticated and insidious -- with the message morphing according to the target audience. For the illegal immigrant, the rhetoric claimed that the vaccine implanted a tracking chip; communities revering child-bearing were told the vaccine caused infertility, and PolitiFact reported claims that “spike proteins from vaccines are replacing sperm in vaccinated males.” One site claimed that vaccine recipients become "magnetized." According to both Kaiser Permanente and the American Heart Association, these fabrications are persisting:

“[In fact]...false information about COVID vaccination and heart defects attributed to the association may be spreading….”

Social media magnifies the problem. Studies report that over 60% of people rely for their health information on social media, most of which don’t bother to fact-check [1]. That provides influencers with a broad platform to hawk their delusions unchecked. Some sham science is grassroots, but much is driven by organized anarchists, with Russia at its core. As the journal Nature reports, "multi-million-dollar organizations, incorporated mainly in the USA with as many as 60 staff each," energize anti-vax initiatives.

Foreign involvement

For example, foreign fingerprints were found on a cartoon posted on a far-right discussion forum showing police officers wearing bulletproof vests with Biden-Harris campaign logos battering down a door with a large syringe. A caption read in part, "In Biden's America," suggesting the Biden Administration was about to order mandatory vaccinations for everyone. 

This inflammatory cartoon and similar campaigns were traced to a Russian troll farm whose mission is to stir up political trouble in the US. The group cultivates and exploits foreign anti-vaxxers as "useful idiots" in their mission to cause harm to Americans and citizens of other Western countries.

Oh, The Tangled Webs They Weave

“Without exaggeration, significant harm to society and individuals, derives from the wanton spread of medical misinformation.”

- Journal of the American Heart Association (JAHA)

The latest outrage, the bastardization of a scientific study of cardiovascular-kidney-metabolic syndrome to falsely support claims that COVID vaccines cause excess cardiac defects, not only deters vaccine uptake but discourages the use of cardiac drugs and devices. The American Heart Association has been unequivocal:

“The American Heart Association's 2023 Cardio-Kidney Metabolic Health scientific statement, …, does not include any references to COVID-19 vaccination or vaccines of any kind. (emphasis added).”

Another anti-vaccine myth is that COVID-19 vaccines are linked to sudden, unexplained death in young people. It gained wide attention from conspiracy theorists on social media with the hashtag #diedsuddenly. Certain events in real life, including Buffalo Bills player Damar Hamlin's cardiac arrest, offered fuel for speculation without evidence. The fact is that a small number of people of all ages do die suddenly from cardiac arrhythmias, strokes, seizures, and other causes, independent of their vaccination status.

The dangers of oversimplification 

Deciding whether to accept a particular treatment involves complex balancing considerations. All interventions carry some risks. Someone, like a doctor, with expertise, relevant experience, and specialized knowledge, can help sort through these competing influences. While a low risk of myocarditis may be associated with COVID vaccines, that is not the sole factor to consider. The risks of acute COVID-19 and long COVID must be balanced against the risk of vaccination. According to the CDC, the risks from COVID infection far outweigh known vaccine risks, cardiac and otherwise. The “misinformation-mafia” would have you believe otherwise. 

Snake Oil

While many myths relate to products or devices affecting the health of individuals, inaccurate claims about vaccine safety also affect public health: The segments of the population too old, young, infirm, or immunocompromised to benefit maximally from vaccines themselves are forced to rely on the buy-in and solidarity of society’s uptake to slow the spread of infections. Another purpose of disinformation disseminated on sham science posts is to grease the palms of the grifters who sell phony “natural alternatives” to medically proven interventions.

“Long-term exposure to boric acid can potentially cause damage to the testes, endocrine system, and a developing fetus.” 

Poison Control

While vaccine-related misinformation gets the most attention, there are other targets.  One recent campaign launched on TikTok recommended adding a “pinch of borax” daily to a glass of water to “help stave off osteoporosis, ease joint pain, break down kidney stones, fight chronic fatigue, and boost testosterone levels for men dealing with erectile dysfunction,” and more. Hogwash. Borax can be poisonous, and while it is a great cleaning product, it has been banned in U.S. foodstuffs. According to Kelly Johnson-Arbor, a toxicology physician and co-medical director at the National Capital Poison Center:

“Borax can …. potentially result in blue-green vomit or diarrhea if ingested. Over time, it can cause anemia and seizures and … soaking in borax could cause rashes that make the skin appear as bright pink as a boiled lobster and start to fall off.”

 These warnings, however, haven’t stopped consumption and untoward results.

There are many more examples. Another trend popularized on TikTok by a company, Nose Slap, involves inhaling smelling salts, which can be poisonous when done incorrectly or over extended periods. TikTok claims it has rules to counter misinformation, but many scoff. 

Researchers found that TikTok’s own search tool seems designed to steer users to false claims in some cases. When researchers typed the words ‘COVID vaccine’ into the search tool, for instance, the tool suggested searches on keywords including ‘COVID vaccine exposed’ and ‘COVID vaccine injury.’” 

– Associated Press

Thanks to influence peddling on YouTube, we have PRIME energy drink whose caffeine content is equivalent to roughly six cans of Coca-Cola and is potentially dangerous to children. The company claims it isn’t marketed to kids but, according to Senator Charles Schumer, there was little noticeable difference in the online marketing between the company’s hyper-caffeinated and caffeine-free beverages. And, according to NBC News:

“Backed by two of YouTube’s best-known stars, PRIME was an immediate sensation when it launched last year, prompting long lines in grocery stores and reports of school yard resale markets.” 

Stop the Slop

With First Amendment advocates, lawyers, and the laity braying about Free Speech, it is hard to rein in this dangerous, self-serving, money-generating (for grifters) behavior.

Some advocate suing those promulgating the dangerous falsehoods, which raises various legal and practical obstacles. 

Even if one could overcome the requirement to prove a direct causal link between the actor and the act -- to sue in tort -- one must also establish an injury or harm.  If we want to shut off the spigot of the slime before injury occurs, tort law is too late.

Another possibility is to mandate warnings on offending social media posts, clearly indicating the inaccurate, medically flawed claims – but if the government is involved, that invites First Amendment issues about who gets to make that decision. (There is case law that would support that approach – especially for commercially beneficial posts.)

Some urge that medical boards suspend or revoke the licenses of physicians trafficking in pseudo-science. That has happened in some jurisdictions, but the bar is high, and there has been little appetite for it.

And then there is the government, which has tried to influence social media to self-monitor. We will see shortly whether our Supreme Jurists understand how dangerous these posts are.

A relatively novel approach could be employed against those in the “sham science” business for bucks. According to consumer trade expert Professor Max Helveston of the University of Houston, suits under the Federal Trade Commission Act might provide recourse. Let’s hope.

While it might be challenging to devise legally acceptable control of rampant delusionary, dangerous information on social media, we must find some way to prevent the grifters, fear-mongers, and crazies from injuring their fellow Americans.

[1] This is not confined to the US.

Dr. Billauer, JD MA (Occ. Health) Ph.D. is Professor of Law and Bioethics in the International Program in Bioethics of the University of Porto and Research Professor of Scientific Statecraft at the Institute of World Politics in Washington DC.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is the Glenn Swogger Distinguished Fellow at the American Council on Science and Health. He was the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. Find Henry on X @HenryIMiller


ACSH relies on donors like you. If you enjoy our work, please contribute.

Make your tax-deductible gift today!



Popular articles