Anti-vax flyers 'antagonise': More than 800 reports of Covid misinformation, scams

Author
Amy Wiggins, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 16 Jul 2021, 5:14PM
More than 800 people fed up with Covid-19 misinformation have reported it to Cert NZ. Photo / File
More than 800 people fed up with Covid-19 misinformation have reported it to Cert NZ. Photo / File

Anti-vax flyers 'antagonise': More than 800 reports of Covid misinformation, scams

Author
Amy Wiggins, NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Fri, 16 Jul 2021, 5:14PM

More than 800 reports of Covid 19 misinformation and more than 30 reports of vaccine scams have been reported, but that likely represents a fraction of the real number affected.

This comes as more anti-vaccine flyers are turning up in Auckland letterboxes purporting to tell the "real facts" about Covid 19 and the Pfizer vaccine.

Kiwis had reported 835 instances of misinformation around Covid-19 and the vaccine to CERT NZ by July 9, the Ministry of Health said.

There had also been 34 reports of Covid-19 vaccine scams.

The ministry could not provide details on how many different publications the reports related to, but CERT NZ had details of five different scams listed on their website.

Two of the scams were emails asking people to take part in a vaccine survey, one was a Facebook account claiming people were eligible for Covid-19 relief payments, one offered the vaccine for sale for $49.99 and another advised people to go online and "vote" to secure their vaccine.

Associate Professor at the University of Auckland and vaccinologist Helen Petousis-Harris acknowledged the number of reports would not reflect the scale of the problem.

"Most people will screw it up and throw it in the bin," she said.

Auckland University Associate Professor Helen Petousis-Harris is glad people are taking time to report misinformation but says it likely reflects a fraction of the problem. Photo / Supplied

The issue was the campaigns often used propaganda techniques which were very good at swaying beliefs and influencing those who already had reservations, Petousis-Harris said.

"It can raise concerns where previously there were none."

She described those behind the scams as "predators" and the "lowest of the low".

On the bright side, Petousis-Harris was glad people were taking the time to report scams and misinformation.

"I know that there's been some misinformation that's been spread very widely and put in people's letterboxes, which really puts it in people's face. This can really antagonise people and provoke them into reporting these sorts of things."

Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said the Government was focused on providing clear and transparent information so New Zealanders could make informed decisions.

"From time to time, we're all likely to have seen social media posts attempting to call the vaccination process into question. When that happens, it's important those messages can be countered with science-based, accurate responses," he said.

A Ministry of Health spokesman said it was important people use only reliable sources and carefully consider what they pass on.

"The Ministry of Health's focus is on providing clear, consistent access to trusted and transparent information. We are aware, however, there is some material circulating in the community that comments on the safety and efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines."

A Mt Eden resident who received the latest flyer said he was concerned by the practice.

"This is the second time in recent weeks that someone has hand-delivered Covid misinformation to our street. It's worrying because the pamphlet looks professional, but its contents encourage really dangerous public health behaviour."

The same flyer, made and distributed by Voices of Freedom, ended up in Christchurch letterboxes last month as well.

A fully vaccinated Christchurch woman who had health problems that put her at serious risk of dying from Covid-19 said the flyer made her furious.

Speaking after the Christchurch incident, Petousis-Harris said the flyer was misleading and contained a lot of emotive language.

"Such as 'banned' and 'we're not allowed to know' and 'health authorities are ignoring this', and 'experimental'," she said.

"So those are all sorts of things that provoke an emotion, and the statements are sort of quite vague.

"But it leads you to kind of think that 'maybe there must be some conspiracy going on here' so it's very misleading."

After the earlier Mt Eden pamphlet drop Petousis-Harris told the Herald such tactics used characteristics of propaganda and were "deeply misleading".

"Ultimately people could die as a result of this kind of misinformation. The outcome could be a potentially fatal disease that's now preventable."

She said almost all Covid-19 hospitalisations in America now involved unvaccinated people.

"The data required for regulators to authorise the vaccine was available at the end of last year. Vaccine studies never cease."

There have been reports of the flyers turning up in Dunedin, Wellington, Nelson, Marlborough and Gisborne.

In May, the organisation claimed it had raised $50,000 and was printing two million flyers to be dropped off around the country.

Otago University Associate Professor James Ussher, the scientific director of Vaccine Alliance Aotearoa New Zealand, earlier told the Herald the flyers undermined trust in the vaccine which put New Zealand's future in jeopardy as borders slowly reopened, inevitably bringing the virus back into the community.

"If people aren't vaccinated then they will be at risk and they will eventually, one way or another, get infected and they're at risk of transmitting infection onto other people.

"The best way that we can control it, once the borders are open, is by having as many people as possible vaccinated."

He said the Pfizer vaccine was shown to be extremely safe with more than 130m doses administered in the United States alone with no evidence of unmanageable side-effects.

CERT NZ said a number of Covid 19 vaccine related scams had been reported and in such instances they provided mitigation advice and took steps to stop the scam where possible including publishing details on the CERT NZ website.

"The easiest thing for people to remember is the Covid-19 vaccine is free. At no point will you be asked to pay for the vaccine, or pay for your place in the queue," a spokesman said.

The Ministry of Health said all official communications about the Covid-19 vaccine would be from Unite Against Covid-19, the Ministry of Health websites and their social media channels.

  • If people came across misinformation about the vaccine they should email [email protected] to report it to CERT NZ.

Scam advice:

  • Remember the Covid-19 vaccine is free. At no point will you be asked to pay for the vaccine, or pay for your place in the queue. You will never be asked for your bank account or card details.
  • Do not click any links or press anything and hang up if it is via phone.
  • Forward the email, phone number, time and date and details of the scam to CERT NZ.