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How Covid Myths Spread on Far-Right Social Media Platforms

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WASHINGTON — Not long after Randy Watt died of Covid-19, his daughter Danielle sat down at her computer, trying to find clues as to why the smart and thoughtful man she knew had refused to get vaccinated. She pulled up Google, typed in a screen name he had used previously and discovered a secret that stunned her.

Her father, she learned, had a hidden, virtual life on Gab, a far-right social media platform that traffics in Covid misinformation. And there was one other surprise as well: As he fought the coronavirus, he told his followers that he was taking ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections that experts say has no profit — and in reality could be dangerous — for patients with Covid-19.

“On two occasions I coughed so hard that larynx went into spasm and closed my airway,” he wrote in a post on Gab a number of days before Christmas last 12 months. “Frightening, yes, but relaxing as a substitute of panicking allowed the airway to open in 15 to twenty seconds. Took second dose of ivermectin, together with ibuprofen for fever and my usual vitamin regimen. Rest, fluids, and prayer.”

Mr. Watt, a passionate songwriter and musician who loved the outside and had retired from an energy company in Ohio, died on Jan. 7. He was 64. His wife and two daughters are still struggling to grasp what led him to a site like Gab, which his widow, Victoria Stefan Watt, blames for what she called his “senseless death.”

Across the country, countless Americans are suffering a really particular style of Covid grief — a mix of anger, sorrow and shame that comes with losing a loved one who has consumed social media falsehoods. On Tuesday, in what was likely his last appearance within the White House briefing room before he retires from government service at the tip of the 12 months, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, President Biden’s chief medical adviser, pleaded with Americans to talk out against scientific misinformation.

“The individuals who have correct information, who take science seriously, who don’t have strange, way-out theories about things but who base what they are saying on evidence and data, have to speak up more,” Dr. Fauci said, “because the opposite side that just keeps putting out misinformation and disinformation appears to be tireless in that effort.”

Experts say the spread of health misinformation — particularly on fringe social media platforms like Gab — is more likely to be a long-lasting legacy of the coronavirus pandemic. And there aren’t any easy solutions.

“There was such an incredible give attention to developing vaccines quickly,” said Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar on the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, adding: “But from my perspective, there’s a missing piece there — a missing social behavioral piece. You possibly can get a vaccine out to people in 100 days but they think it’s poison? You’ve still got a giant problem.”

In preparation for future pandemics, the White House recently released a recent national biodefense strategy that calls for the federal government to “enhance messaging partnerships” before one other biological threat emerges. The goal, said Dr. Raj Panjabi, Mr. Biden’s top adviser on global health security, is to work with “reputable firms who care about getting the message right.”

But fighting misinformation has change into political in itself — and has landed the Biden administration in court, opposite the attorneys general in Louisiana and Missouri, each Republicans, who’ve accused it of suppressing free speech on matters like Covid-19 and elections by working with social media giants including Facebook and Twitter.

Dr. Fauci will probably be deposed in that case on Wednesday. On Monday, a federal appeals court, siding with the Justice Department, placed on hold a lower court’s order requiring Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the surgeon general, and two other administration officials to sit down for their very own depositions.

  • Long Covid: Individuals who took the antiviral drug Paxlovid inside a number of days after being infected with the coronavirus were less more likely to experience long Covid months later, a study found.
  • Updated Boosters: Recent findings show that updated boosters by Pfizer and Moderna are higher than their predecessors at increasing antibody levels against essentially the most common version of the virus now circulating.
  • Calls for a Recent Strategy: Covid boosters may help vulnerable Americans dodge serious illness or death, but some experts consider the shots have to be improved to stop recent waves.
  • Future Vaccines: Financial and bureaucratic barriers in the USA mean that the following generation of Covid vaccines may be designed here, but used elsewhere.

It should not be really easy for the federal government to team up with smaller fringe sites like Gab, a hub for white supremacists and online conspiracy theories whose founder, Andrew Torba, argues that “unapologetic Christian Nationalism is what is going to save the USA of America.” The location, which gained hundreds of thousands of recent users after the Jan. 6, 2021, riot on the Capitol, is rife with posts promoting unproven Covid-19 remedies, including ivermectin. It also has displayed ads offering ivermectin on the market.

In an email to The Recent York Times, Mr. Torba said Gab was “not able, as a neutral platform provider, to ‘fact-check’ our users or assess the reality or falsity of any information posted to the location.” He also criticized The Times and ended his message with an instruction: “Please repent and accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.”

It’s difficult, if not not possible, to quantify the precise toll that Covid misinformation has taken on American society, but scholars are attempting. In a report published last 12 months, Dr. Sell and her colleagues estimated that 5 to 30 percent of unvaccinated Americans were influenced by Covid falsehoods. At George Washington University, Sarah Wagner, a social anthropologist who researches death and mourning, has a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to check the results of Covid misinformation.

Mr. Watt was not a Covid denier, his family says. His elder daughter, Jessica Watt Dougherty, describes him as “a spiritual person” — a personal man who loved Neil Young’s music; played guitar, banjo and harmonica; and wore his gray hair long like a “leftover hippie.” He passed his musical gifts to his grandchildren, teaching them to play guitar.

When an energy company proposed running a pipeline through his Ohio neighborhood, just south of Akron, Mr. Watt helped lead the fight against it, testifying in government hearings, filing a lawsuit and writing a rustic song, “Get Mad.” He was a Republican, but he was quiet about his politics. He and his daughters never spoke of it.

“My husband questioned authority,” Ms. Stefan Watt said. On politics, she said, they agreed to disagree.

Early within the pandemic, Mr. Watt was “hypervigilant with protocol,” in keeping with his wife. He wore masks and ordered groceries online to avoid crowded stores. But sooner or later, like many Americans unsure of whom or what to consider, Mr. Watt began questioning public health authorities. He felt that they were fear-mongering and that things weren’t as bad as they said.

Sometime in December 2020, just as coronavirus vaccines began to change into available, he joined Gab — without his family’s knowledge. His daughters say they have no idea what drew him there. His wife thinks he was depressed, stuck at home and feeling isolated in his retirement, and “went down the rabbit hole” right into a world that didn’t reflect who he was.

Mr. Watt soon expressed his disappointment with the location, noting in March 2021 that he had paid $500 for a lifetime membership without receiving much in return. He called Gab “a cesspool,” adding that he was “forced to doubt nearly 9/10 of what I read.”

Still, Mr. Watt stuck around, eventually posting or reposting greater than 3,200 messages. He wrote disparagingly of Mr. Biden and admiringly of former President Donald J. Trump. He also shared posts promoting ivermectin, which the Food and Drug Administration had been warning against as a Covid treatment.

In a post in April 2021, Mr. Watt wondered if Covid-19 might be “overcome by inexpensive treatments resembling easy Vitamin D, Vitamin C, ivermectin” and hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug promoted by Mr. Trump.

“Who should I trust?” Mr. Watt wrote. “Big government? Media? When was the last time they steered me in the correct direction without lies and chicanery?”

In a rustic that values freedom of speech, tamping down falsehoods on social media is difficult business for policymakers and health officials in Washington. Mr. Torba has positioned Gab as a “First Amendment company,” as he put it, “which suggests we tolerate ‘offensive’ but legal speech.”

Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University and an authority in public health law, said the administration could be on “weak legal footing if it tries to manage these firms.” Misinformation and disinformation, he said, amount to “probably the central problem for public health and safety in America, and yet nobody knows what to do about it.”

Mr. Biden has tried using his bully pulpit. Last 12 months, after the surgeon general declared misinformation “an urgent threat to public health,” the president publicly accused platforms like Facebook of “killing people.” Administration officials also met and communicated with officials from social media firms to coordinate and promote accurate messages about Covid-19.

The 2 Republican attorneys general, Eric Schmitt of Missouri and Jeff Landry of Louisiana, argued that the officials had colluded to suppress free speech and filed a suit in May. In July, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to show over communications between administration officials and social media firms. Mr. Schmitt and Mr. Landry said that messages released in response were proof of an enormous “censorship enterprise.”

Gab, founded in 2016, was not a “huge anti-vaccine gathering point” early within the pandemic, said David Thiel, a knowledge and technology expert at Stanford University who published an evaluation of Gab in June. But that modified, he said, after vaccines arrived and the key social media platforms began cracking down on Covid falsehoods. The flood of recent users to Gab after the Jan. 6 attack amplified its anti-vaccine content, he said.

In his email to The Times, Mr. Torba acknowledged that Gab users had been in a position to make statements that will not have been permitted on Facebook and Twitter, and he suggested that The Times and other mainstream news outlets had “parroted” the federal government’s statements about Covid-19.

“These false assertions,” he wrote, “were questioned by Gab users who were free to discuss these topics on our platform in ways they’d not have been in a position to on Twitter and Facebook.”

When vaccines became widely available within the winter and spring of last 12 months, Ms. Stefan Watt said, each she and her husband were cautious; they desired to see how other people fared. At one point, she thought each of them would get vaccinated together. But Mr. Watt balked and grew more adamant over time.

“I actually have received FLU vaccines for many years with no unwell results,” he wrote on Gab in September 2021. But now, he said, “I’m extremely wary of taking ANY vax in fear that I’ll receive a Covid jab.”

Mr. Watt’s wife and daughters said they didn’t argue together with his decision. “I used to be raised with, ‘What my dad says goes,’” Ms. Watt Dougherty said, adding, “It was not something that I pushed.” Now she regrets that and feels guilty.

On Dec. 26, 2021, after feeling unwell for 4 weeks and refusing to get tested, Mr. Watt finally took himself to the hospital. Doctors threw all manner of Covid-19 treatments at him: steroids, the antiviral drug remdesivir and tocilizumab, a monoclonal antibody authorized by the F.D.A. for Covid on an emergency basis for patients who’re also getting oxygen.

He told his wife that he regretted his decision to not get vaccinated and was finally able to do it. It was too late. On Jan. 4, he recorded a goodbye video. “I’m Randy Watt,” he said from behind an oxygen mask, with monitors beeping within the background. “I’m 64. And likelihood is I’m dying.”

For those left behind, a death linked to Covid misinformation carries its own type of trauma. Dr. Wagner of George Washington University calls it “troubled grief.” Many families are suffering in silence. Some fight over how much information to disclose; they don’t need to embarrass their family members — or worse, to have them mocked and caricatured on schadenfreude-laden web sites. Some insist on leaving Covid-19 out of the obituary.

“They don’t want the epithet of Covid attached to the name,” said Martha Greenwald, the curator of the WhoWeLost Project, which collects stories written by bereaved friends and relatives.

The Watt family is not any exception. Ms. Watt Dougherty, a college counselor, is processing her grief by throwing herself into activism. She is working with a gaggle called Marked by Covid, which is pushing for a national memorial to Covid victims, and is collaborating with a filmmaker friend on a documentary about Covid misinformation.

But her stepmother and her sister strongly object to the film, fearing it’ll paint Mr. Watt in an unfavorable light and viewing Ms. Watt Dougherty’s work on it as a betrayal. The sisters, once so close they considered themselves soul mates, not speak.

“I’m grieving losing two people — my father and my sister,” Danielle Watt said.

Ms. Watt doesn’t hold Gab accountable for her father’s death. “He made the alternative to not get vaccinated and unfortunately Covid took his life,” she wrote in an email. “There is just not all the time a spot to put blame.”

But her older sister, Ms. Watt Dougherty, says sites like Gab should be held accountable for the falsehoods they spread. The documentary, due out next 12 months, is an effort to try this. She says the film can be a part of her “healing journey.” It is named “I’m Still Here, Love” — words Mr. Watt wrote from his hospital bed in one in all the last text messages he ever sent her.

“This is just not about my dad,” she said. “My dad is just a part of the mess. We’re left to select up all these pieces.”

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