(Image: AAP/ Stefan Postles)

This is part two in a series. Read part one here.

The online conspiracy business has real world consequences. Medical professionals are concerned that claims from unqualified influencers are increasingly thriving in a vacuum of trust. 

In Samoa last year an outbreak of measles killed over 80 children. At the same time, online anti-vaxxer entrepreneur Tay Winterstein compared the Samoan government to Nazi Germany after Samoa enforced vaccination.

In the US a measles outbreak in 2019 led to 1300 cases across 31 states. The Centres for Disease Control reported it was the highest number of cases since 1992, with the majority being people who were not vaccinated.

The World Health Organisation named “vaccination hesitancy” in its top 10 health risks worldwide last year.

Locally, Dr Chris Moy of the Australian Medical Association (AMA) told Inq that some patients were objecting even to tetanus injections.

“It’s making our job hard,” said Moy, chair of the AMA’s ethics and medico-legal committee. “People have this philosophy of the natural versus the artificial” — a reflection of the message of online influencers.

Yet for all the impact that message is having, Inq’s inquiries show that authorities have been largely powerless when it comes to halting the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theory.  

Social media platforms Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been the super spreaders of false information. Despite promises to rein it in, a study released last week by the UK’s Centre for Countering Digital Hate found that the platforms were failing to act on more than 90% of posts which contained misinformation about coronavirus.

Examples included false claims that: 

  • COVID-19 is caused by vaccines 
  • 5G mobile technology poisons cells and causes COVID-19 
  • COVID-19 is a “false flag” in order to force compulsory vaccinations 
  • Seven children died in a vaccination trial in Africa.

The study said that the results were “in stark contrast to public statements made by each social media company claiming to be taking strong action to stamp out coronavirus misinformation”.

In Australia, one Facebook user (who asked not to be identified) told Inq that the 5G-focused Facebook group they are a member of changed its name to avoid being shut down by Facebook. It’s now named “Sydney For Safe Technology”.

The group member said the group had battled to keep out those who linked 5G to the spread of coronavirus, though they claimed that Bill Gates (a target of derision among conspiracy theory groups for his vocal role in tackling the spread of viruses) was seeking to control the world’s population through a project called “ID2020“.

“What medical qualifications does Bill Gates have to talk about immunisation?” they asked. 

And what of the power of medical regulators to stop false claims made by online operators such as celebrity chef Pete Evans and Winterstein — who has leveraged her marriage to NRL player Frank Winterstein.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration moved quickly to stop Evans selling a quack device which he suggested would work against the coronavirus. But Australia’s health system is not nearly as effective when it comes to stopping false claims that have an impact on public health.

A key problem is that there is no unified approach from state and federal governments. 

“Bloody hopeless” is the judgement of Ken McLeod, who has been working to bring to account those who make quack medical claims.

McLeod worked as a senior federal bureaucrat and is a member of Friends of Science in Medicine, an organisation of health experts formed in 2011 to emphasise the importance of basing Australian healthcare on evidence, scientifically sound research and established scientific knowledge.

McLeod has been working, unpaid, along with a group of other researchers, doctors and scientists, to gather the evidence for regulators to act. 

He became involved in debunking anti-vaxxer claims more than a decade ago after anti-vaccination activists launched a personal attack on the parents of Dana McCaffery, who died from whooping cough at just four weeks old.

The McCaffreys lived in an area that had low immunisation rates. Following the death of Dana, they became vocal proponents of vaccination — and targets of anti-vaxxers.

“The parents got a tsunami of abuse,” McLeod said. McLeod also saw his younger sister battle the effects of polio from age five — “a vision which is seared into my brain”.

McLeod told Inq that authorities have failed to act on hundreds of complaints over the years.

“Regulators are short of resources and regulatory powers,” he said. “One of our major criticisms is that we give them detailed information and all they do is send out warning letters.”

McLeod charges that chiropractors in particular have “failed to clean up their act” and continue to harbour anti-vaxxers in their ranks.  

A spokesperson for the Chiropractic Board of Australia said it and the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency had taken action “in response to a number of concerns raised about practitioners who have advocated against evidence-based vaccination programs”.

This included restricting practitioners’ work “when there was a serious risk to the public”.

In NSW the Health Care Complaints Commission (HCCC) has published public health warnings on a handful of individuals and organisations that promote anti-vaccination messages.

In 2014 the HCCC warned that one group, the Australian Vaccination-risks Network (AVN), “does not provide reliable information in relation to certain vaccines and vaccination more generally”. The HCCC considered the AVN’s dissemination of “misleading, misrepresented and incorrect information” was likely to “detrimentally affect” clinical management or care. 

Despite that warning, made in 2014, the AVN has continued unbowed.

Earlier this year the World Health Organisation (WHO) was forced to ask the AVN to stop using the WHO logo on a misleading press release posted to Facebook. The post was shared 30,000 times before it was removed, according to the AVN. The group claimed the press release “went viral because it told the truth about vaccination”.

When asked why the NSW HCCC has not used its powers of prohibition when it comes to false health claims made by celebrity influences and bloggers, a spokesperson told Inq that issuing a public warning “has been adopted as a power that we can use in a more preventative way and with wider reach than a prohibition order against an individual”. They conceded, however, that determining the effectiveness of a public warning was “challenging”.

NSW Health said it doesn’t have a regulatory role on the spread of misinformation. Instead, it said, it conducts education and awareness campaigns with a focus on areas that have been “vaccine resistant”. 

But indications are that the zealots of the anti-vaxx and 5G conspiracy movements have little regard for regulations.   

Late last year, for example, one anti-vaxxer posed as a federal official to order a Melbourne clinic to remove vaccine posters.  

On social media, anti-vaxxers and 5G conspiracy theorists have sidestepped attempts to block their messaging by casting themselves as pro-freedom or pro-“informed choice”.

The AMA’s Moy told Inq that social media operators like Winterstein are themselves profiting from an undeclared “secondary gain” in terms of how they monetise their social media brands.

“We have a code of ethics. A doctor would get struck off if we failed to declare payments,” he said.

Moy, though, warned that stopping free speech was not the way to counter online celebrities.

“We need to get influencers who are credible within a given group and will strike a chord within that community to counter misinformation,” he said. “We need to do it.”

This article has been amended to include a comment by the NSW HCCC.