Running a fake disinformation Facebook page
People flooded his page for disinformation. What they found shocked them to their core: Information
Hope this finds you well. My Covid recovery is complete and I’m feeling human again. It’s raining cats and dogs in Los Angeles, and I’m still recovering from that Succession finale. Going to try and chase it down with some Landscapers later.
As the year starts to draw to a close, I’ve been toying with the idea of making a “summer reading list” (or whatever season it is for you — I default to summer because, well, New Zealand) — a sort of Webworm best of, and some other writing I’ve loved this year.
One thing that’s become very clear is that 2021 has been the year of misinformation, and often blatant disinformation.
It’s not just idiots that succumb — doctors have tumbled down the rabbit hole too. The Medical Council of New Zealand just suspended one such doctor who I’d tweeted about earlier this year, Dr Matt Shelton:
And for every doctor there are the thousands of other people flooding to closed Facebook groups where anti-science continues to spread like wildfire.
Facebook cares very little about this — it’s more clicks for them, and more ads to serve. But then a high school teacher named Nick Wilson decided to try another tactic.
He decided to make a fake disinformation page to attract conspiracy theorists like moths to a flame. But instead of filling that page up with utter tripe — he filled it with science.
I was fascinated by his approach, and wanted him to share his experience; this experiment in giving information to those seeking disinformation.
Feeding information to those raised on a diet of disinformation
by Nick Wilson
In the meat space, I’m a high school media studies teacher — so teaching digital literacy and critical thinking is a big part of my job. Over the last two years our classes have investigated conspiracy theories that have evolved out of the pandemic and explored the reasons that people get consumed by them.
I’m naturally interested in this, so I spend a lot of my own time researching the groups in which this misinformation is shared. Part of that research has involved ‘infiltrating’ certain groups with fake aliases to see what misinformation is being shared and more alarmingly — what events are being planned.
All of this came about after a family member fell down the rabbit hole hard at the start of the first lockdown. Classic case: into wellness, and alternative cures like oils. I started hearing from other family members that she’d been talking about underground networks of child trafficking: the usual QAnon nonsense.
As someone who was familiar with this particular pipeline of conspiracy theories, I reached out and attempted to share some counter points to her beliefs with (what I hoped) was very little judgement. Rather than engage with any of the articles I had shared, she simply cut myself and other family members off — unfriending us on social media, the whole nine yards.
The last I heard from her, she was trying to convince my mother that my father’s recent passing was vaccine related. He hadn’t been vaccinated — but a lovely sentiment for the recently bereaved, right? Stay classy, anti-vaxxers.
Earlier this year I found another family member had also gone down the rabbit hole. The connection between two: the Facebook group The Health Forum NZ.
I hadn’t heard of this group so I did some digging. It’s a private, hidden group that actively discourages invites.
The only way to access it is to have the URL and request membership. Fortunately, I discovered this URL circulating on a local white supremacist’s telegram account.
Once my Facebook alt account was accepted into the group, I became one of the 47,000 members exposed to local nutritionist Lynda Wharton’s anti-vax misinformation.
In Wharton’s introduction on the page, she says that she set up the group as a “repository” of real life reactions to Covid 19 vaccines.
“I have been watching the months of vaccine development and now massive global roll out, with growing concerns,” she says. "Stage 4 trials will gradually accrue a mass of clinical data to clarify numerous unanswered safety and efficacy questions. What are Stage 4 trials? YOU. YOU are the Stage 4 trials.”
In addition to having a significant member base (adding 1,500 members a week since the mandates were announced) I was surprised at the high level of engagement Wharton’s posts had. Many of her posts had thousands of comments and likes — in particular, a series of threads in which she requested people who had suffered from or knew of ‘vaccine injuries’ or ‘vaccine deaths’ share their stories.
I have since learned that these threads of thousands of internet strangers sharing their ‘vaccine injury’ stories have captured the imagination of many anti-vaxxers who frequently refer to them as ‘evidence’ that the vaccine is much deadlier than we are being told.
Despite myself and many others reporting the group and its posts, Facebook refuse to do anything more than the occasional temporary ban on Wharton (at which point one of her moderators simply continues her job until she returns.)
The Health Forum NZ were also referred to in a recent documentary segment that investigated how the group was responsible for sharing rumours that the tragic and sudden death of New Zealand hip hop musician Louie Knuxx (aka Todd Williams) was the victim of a vaccine-related death (he wasn’t).
The journalist spoke to William’s whānau who were horrified and distressed by these unfounded rumours which led to anti-vaxxers messaging them on social media with demands that the family not let the ‘true cause of his death’ be covered up.
Creating a Fake Disinformation page: Health Forums NZ 2.0
Realising that many of the Health Forum NZ’s members lacked the digital literacy and critical thinking to make the distinction between real and fake sources of information, I thought it would be interesting to make a public page that is identical to the private group in name and imagery — but actually posts pro-vaccine information from reputable sources.
I pinned a post linking to one of the other fake pages that looked from the outside to be anti-vaxx to add to the ‘authenticity,’ assuming people might just skim over the start of the page before giving it a follow.
Within a few hours the page was receiving visitors, follows and even messages! As predicted, people were mistaking it for the original group and sharing their own misinformation ‘from their own research’ with who they thought was Lynda:
Messages flooded in — all sharing information all stem from the usual suspects of social media: Instagram posts, Rumble links and BitChute videos.
Not only was this a fascinating insight into the unsolicited messages the real group must receive, it also had the added benefit of stopping the spread of a small faction of the misinformation from individuals who believed the real group had received it.
Not all of the interactions were positive of course. Over time, more and more individuals started to read beyond the pinned post and were appalled that information from fact-checked, peer-reviewed articles was being shared in a space they assumed was anti-MSM (or anti-fact you could say):
Initially my response was to hide or simply ignore these comments — but then my curiosity got the better of me. I started responding to the comments, at first simply asking questions about why these individuals believed what they did.
It soon became apparent that their beliefs were based solely on the hearsay of strangers on social media who they chose to put more stock in than the relevant medical professionals and academic experts that MSM were reporting.
Always a teacher, I saw a teaching opportunity and started asking for information from reliable sources of information that were fact-checked and peer-reviewed (i.e. not anecdotal accounts from social media). These requests were nearly always ignored.
However on the odd chance that someone did provide a link to what they believed was reputable, I was able to break down why their authentic looking sources weren’t trust-worthy, and directed them to guides on how to identify fake news:
In all of my comments, I tried to come across as unemotional as possible, trying not to get sucked into an argument but instead simply questioning and presenting facts, statistics, and reliable sources of information.
One trend I noticed is that when their beliefs are questioned, many anti-vaxxers resort to insulting my intelligence and mental health — or even outright dismiss me as a bot or a government puppet bought off to spread propaganda.
Some people were more reasonable than others, but ultimately the majority refused to acknowledge anything that contradicted their existing beliefs.
This exchange was an interesting one for me because the person seemed genuinely afraid and wasn’t engaging in the typical hostile manner I’ve become accustomed to:
Although most comments were from people who came across as very angry, occasionally there is the odd person who is genuinely vaccine-reluctant and is looking for information:
Another unexpected turn was other pro-vaccine people following the page and joining the conversation with anti-vaxxers by providing their own sources of information:
And very occasionally I’d even get some positive comments which is of course a welcome bit of light in what is otherwise a very dark tunnel of angry anti-vaxxers:
“I just wanted to say thank you! Your well considered and informative posts are so welcome within a sea of unsettling tripe about these issues on social media”
In a couple of instances I’ve felt so strongly about a certain argument that I had seen gaining momentum that I’ve actually paid to boost a post countering it to people outside the page. For all the people claiming I’m paid off to spread propaganda, I’m currently working at a $10 loss — so I’m clearly not very good at this government puppet business.
David here again. Sadly, in most cases Nick’s attempts to counter all of the disinformation spread by social media lead to a dead end. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise — but I really admire his novel approach.
“It seems the bonds of these conspiracy theories are too hard to break for most as they are so emotionally invested in their beliefs about the corruption and torture experiments that are being conducted on the unwitting public,” Nick told me.
Still, Nick says he’s going to keep posting information to counter the misinformation he sees circulating.
“It’s a thankless job, but hey, I’m a teacher: I’m used to that.”
PS: If you liked this, you can become a paying subscriber of Webworm. This means I can pay writers like Nick, and is greatly appreciated:
Of course there is always the free Webworm, too — your eyes on my work are also greatly appreciated.
I am MORTIFIED that I used the wrong "too" in the subject line to this post. I have committed a lot of sins in this life and this is near the top. There are a few Webworm readers that message me whenever I make a spelling mistake - and I assure you I will be hearing from them today! :P
This might be a thankless job but please remember - the main success of this type of work is largely silent. It's not likely the people who disagree with you in the comments will change their mind - rather the truly hesitant/considerate/willing to learn, who scroll and read silently without saying anything, and gain new perspective from the things you say & are schooled by the information you present.
You'll never know just how many "watchers" there are or how much of an effect you've had, but please keep on making sense!