Inside Israel's War Room Combating COVID Vaccine Fake News

Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati
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The Health Ministry's coronavirus campaign control center in Airport City, Thursday.
The Health Ministry's coronavirus campaign control center in Airport City, Thursday.Credit: David Bachar
Ido Efrati
Ido Efrati

In a small room in the Health Ministry's control center at the Airport City shopping mall, a battle is being waged. Eleven young people sit there, scanning the internet for particularly viral misinformation, specifically regarding the coronavirus vaccine. This "fake news war room" is operational from the early morning hours until midnight, dedicated to the Sisyphean war of attrition against those who spread false and unfounded information, distort data and forge documents, causing some Israelis to refrain from getting inoculated.  

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The team, which will soon be joined by seven new employees, follows mainstream and social media alike. Webpages or Facebook groups found to disseminate false and harmful information are taken down within hours or a day after being detected, backed by the Justice Ministry's cyber unit and with cooperation from some of the companies involved. “This is an arena we cannot abandon, we have to put up a fight on social media, as well as disseminating information through diverse channels” says the deputy director of the Health Ministry’s information department, Einav Shimron.

“The bastion of almost all online fake news is Telegram, and that’s where we start most of our monitoring” says Amit Goldstein, who heads the war room. “What's born on Telegram quickly reaches Facebook, Twitter and YouTube” he adds. Goldstein points to video clips, memes and banners that are disseminated on encrypted networks, which are considered secure for the people sending them. “On Telegram there are people with many followers who spread fake news, and there's nothing we can do about it. This is a platform that doesn't cooperate with the authorities, so we follow where [the information] goes after that, to other platforms.”

The discourse on social media includes marginal players, characterized by blunt and violent language. They're not interested in dialogue and have no scientific curiosity. In one banner that was disseminated recently, three figures are depicted wearing masks and swastikas on their arms, with the figure in the front giving a Nazi salute. Above the characters is a large logo of the Health Ministry, saying: “The Health Ministry for a better life.”

Shimron at the control center in Airport City, Thursday.Credit: David Bachar

This is an extreme example of something that might reflect the mindset of this dazed fringe, but the potential damage they cause is small. “Not every false post is of interest to us, even if it’s completely fake in terms of content," Goldstein says. Instead, they're interested "in the potential to do damage through widespread exposure.”

Just like the epidemic itself, when it comes to fake news, it’s the virality that counts. The objective is to have as few people as possible see the post item before it's taken down. “We contact the cyber unit at the Justice Ministry, and they’re supposed to check whether there was a false information violation, legally speaking,” explains Shimron. “If there is one, the state formally approaches Facebook, Google Israel or other networks, asking them to remove the content.” However, groups that are removed often crop up again the next day under a slightly different name, and with the same number of followers.

The war room is mainly looking for fake posts posing as official information, presented as what looks like a credible and convincing document. “We see many types of fake news," Shimron says, "documents with false numbers that purportedly came from the FDA, from Pfizer or other drug companies, describing non-existent side effects, or playing with data regarding the prevalence of existing side effects. There are documents with the Health Ministry logo that are totally fabricated, or ‘quotes’ supposedly coming from 'doctors from abroad' giving false analysis of medical data or advice."

Lies on the pashkevils

Following the vaccination campaign, there has been a new spike in false information, particularly since the campaign opened to younger people. In November, Haaretz reported on a survey conducted by Dr. Amiel Dror from the Galil Medical Center in Nahariya, which examined public responsiveness to the vaccine. “We saw that many people, especially young ones under 45 years of age, were getting their information online” Amiel said at the time. “The lack of information leaves a wide opening for partial or manipulative information. It’s easy to spread disinformation and scare people into avoiding getting vaccinated. We saw how many people form their opinion about the vaccine based on what they see on social media.”

The battle against the vaccine is also taking place in ultra-Orthodox communities, which do not use social media. There, the false news appears on neighborhood pashkevils, or posters. “In these communities we see notices appearing overnight on posters,” says Shimron. “We prepare notices countering them, without the ministry’s logo. We hang them up in the morning, and overnight they take our posters down and hang up theirs. In this sector, there's a constant battle against fake news about rabbis who don’t support vaccination, even when, in fact, they do. This has driven us to post announcements in Haredi newspapers. You can’t take your foot off the gas for one second” she says.

Yiddish-language posters supporting the vaccination drive, Thursday.Credit: David Bachar

Among Arab communities, where vaccination rates are still lower compared to the general population, there is also great concern about vaccination due to rumors and false information. The Health Ministry has launched a large street campaign in these communities, with the message: “Over one hundred million vaccinated people around the world can’t be wrong. Go get vaccinated.” Along with the campaign, Arab doctors have been recruited in order to further the spread of reliable information about the vaccine.

The ministry has also recently initiated an Instagram campaign, in which celebrities who’ve been inoculated are photographed with bare shoulders, calling on young people to get the vaccine, which has generated some publicity. Shimron says that this campaign targets people between the ages of 16 and 25. “Generally, our method of contending with the vaccine issue is transparency, with explanations by doctors and professionals,” says Shimron. Older people are more willing to listen to doctors, she says, "But the lower the age, you see that influence changes, and is more based on peer groups, friends and online followers, so we need to take action there too.”

Rational risk management

Pockets of resistance to vaccination have always existed, whether in the case of the outbreak of avian flu in 2009, of polio in 2013 or of measles in 2018. This opposition intensified under the influence of social media, and echoed in mainstream media. In the case of coronavirus, the situation is more complex and critical. The race against time, combined with the fact that the vaccines were produced within a year and that some questions about it are left unanswered, provide fertile ground for the spread of fake news.

The "fake news war room" in Airport City, Thursday.Credit: David Bachar

The initial findings regarding the vaccine’s effectiveness helped the information campaign. Projecting the message of rational risk management – that is, comparing the vaccine, with the gaps in information that exist about it, with the severity of the pandemic and its damage – is much harder. This makes the battle for hearts and minds even harder. The fact that there are still no decisive answers regarding long-term effects of the vaccine leaves much room for intimidation and speculation. This sometimes makes people forget that when it comes to the virus, too, the long-term effects are still unknown.

“The public is divided into three groups: vaccine supporters, vaccine objectors, and people who are hesitating, who are in the middle,” says Shimron. “We direct our information efforts mainly at the hesitant, with a series of campaigns by family physicians, who explain the vaccine and provide information about its utility and effectiveness. There's proof on the ground already, we're already seeing how infections are dropping among those who got the vaccine compared to young people who still haven't."

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