How Misinformation Starts

Unpacking a small-ball COVID vaccine conspiracy theory from this week.

How does a piece of viral misinformation get its wings? Sometimes it’s malice—a doctored video, a fabricated quote. Sometimes it’s ignorance—a misreading of a graph or piece of data. Other times, however, the trouble starts with an institutional failing; a bureaucratic attempt to make things tidier than they are, a sloppy piece of mainstream journalism. This week provided a small-scale but instructive example of this latter phenomenon.

Could it be that the COVID vaccines, far from making people less likely to catch the disease and spread it to others, actually makes people spread the virus more? Such a claim has been ping-ponging around MAGA Twitter over the last 24 hours, with all advancing it relying on the same source: a screenshot from a USA Today article posted by right-wing cable pundit and strategist Jason Meister.

“NBC News, citing unnamed officials aware of the decision,” USA Today wrote Wednesday, “reported it comes after new data suggests vaccinated individuals could have higher levels of virus and infect others amid the surge of cases driven by the delta variant of the coronavirus.”

The quote is legit—so what gives here?

The first thing to note is that the sentence itself is poorly written and vague. “New data suggests vaccinated individuals could have higher levels of virus” is a statement missing a crucial piece of information—higher levels of virus than what? The new talking point of the anti-vaccine posters assumes one answer: higher levels of virus than unvaccinated people do.

But that isn’t what NBC reported. Here’s NBC’s Ken Dilanian, tweeting earlier in the day Wednesday (emphasis added): “New data suggests that fully vaccinated individuals are not just contracting COVID, but could be carrying higher levels of the virus than previously understood.”

It’s clear from this that the USA Today writeup was missing key information, and in fact the USA Today piece was itself updated later in the day. But no editorial explanation was given for the earlier mistake; instead, the paragraph was simply deleted in its entirety. This, of course, further goosed the conspiratorial conviction of the anti-vaccine sleuths that someone was trying to hide inconvenient information that had gotten out by mistake. One Trending Politics article by former Fox News producer and pundit Kyle Becker, headlined “New Evidence Suggests COVID Vaccine May *SPREAD* the Virus,” called the quote “a passage that was later scrubbed from an article.”

Despite the edit, the quote can still be found at various local news sites that syndicate USA Today content—but this time without the hyperlink to the actual NBC content being mistakenly rereported.  

“USA Today issued an accurate report on the updated mask guidance,” a spokesperson for the newspaper’s parent company Gannett told The Dispatch. “In this matter, the report was taken out of context. The original and full report cited NBC News correctly and was updated to reflect the latest information from the CDC press conference.”

The point here isn’t to make excuses for the rotten infrastructure of conspiracy theorists, motivated reasoners, and assorted hacks that can whip one poorly written sentence into a brand new anti-vaccine talking point overnight. But it’s important also to note the media habits that contribute to a story like this—the sloppy rewriting of another outlet’s content that led to the flub in the first place, and the unmarked updates that only made it more difficult for confused people to figure out whether there was any truth to this new allegation.

If you’re in media, here’s a good prayer: Let misinformation come into the world—just not through me.