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6 May 2022

The Pfizer conspiracy is a product of Twitter’s armchair experts

Pseudoscience has been catapulted from conspiracist fringes into mainstream conversation.

By Chris Stokel-Walker

People are wrong about things almost every minute of every day. It’s human nature to misunderstand and misrepresent what we see in our day-to-day lives. We all make mistakes. But in the social media age, such errors can be amplified and spread, turning an honest mistake into something harmful.

That is the charitable explanation of why wild allegations that misrepresent the findings of studies into Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccines are going viral on social media. The supposed “Pfizer documents” scandal that has been careening around certain corners of the internet for the entire pandemic has broken into the mainstream, becoming a Twitter trending topic for large portions of this week, after being given the oxygen of publicity by high-profile individuals like the US congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Among the comments going most viral on Twitter are unsubstantiated claims that Pfizer “lied about everything”, that trials on the vaccine should have been shut down for safety concerns, and that “the vaccine wasn’t worth a bollix [sic]”. Inevitably, that last one came with a howl of frustration that you won’t see it on the news. The reason you won’t see it on the news, however, is more prosaic than a mass media, big business, and giant government conspiracy: to put it simply, the documents don’t say what many people on social media seem to think they do.

In many viral posts Twitter users have completely misrepresent what’s actually said in the documents — which aren’t in fact from Pfizer at all. One seemingly definitive a-ha moment captured in a tweet claims that pregnant and breastfeeding women were advised to take the jab while internal documents said it was not recommended for those women. It sounds damning, and would be, if the documents were recent or from Pfizer. Instead, the document dates from 2020, when women were advised not to have the jab because of an absence of safety evidence, and is from the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA), not Pfizer. Twitter has slapped that tweet — and plenty of others — with labels warning that it’s misleading or non-contextual content.

The proliferation of Pfizer falsehoods is the result of two huge problems with social media slamming together. One: Twitter makes us all armchair experts, willing to pontificate on any topic, and treated with equal value to those who devote their lives to actually understanding a scientific field. The scientist David Robert Grimes put it more prosaically: “A bunch of conspiratorial half-wits with all the scientific, statistical acumen of a particularly inept hamster are, yet again, incapable of understanding [science].”

And two: it pours fuel on the fire of anything mildly controversial. We know that content that triggers strong emotional reactions is likely to spread further, faster, on social media. The effect of Twitter is to telescope the gap between the source of information and the massive megaphone that can be used to spread incorrect interpretations of complicated documents. Furthermore, medical trial research documents are highly complicated, and not meant to be read and understood by the average Joe.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that innocent mistakes aren’t the only way fake news gets spread. Some people maliciously and deliberately do so.

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If ignorance is bliss, then feigning it seems to be a sure-fire way to stoke the reactionary responders on Twitter, and catapult something from the conspiracist fringes of society into mainstream conversation. It’s the way social media works.

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