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Anti-vaccination disinformation targets youths on Finnish social media

A vaccine specialist told Yle that the claims made on an anti-vaccine website are either unintentionally or intentionally false and misleading.

Puhelimessa on näkyvillä useita sosiaalisen median sovelluksia.
Anti-vaccine disinformation aimed at young people has been spreading on social media platforms over the past week. Image: Belén Weckström / Yle
Yle News

As Finland started rolling out coronavirus vaccinations to all 12- to 15-year-olds from Monday this week, a parallel campaign of anti-vaccination disinformation began targeting the age group through social media channels, including the popular photo sharing site Instagram.

Many of the posts reference the Pelastetaan lapset (roughly translated as 'Let's Save the Children' and not to be confused with the international 'Save the Children' charity or Pelastakaa Lapset in Finnish) website.

The 'Let's Save the Children' site says that it wants to prevent coronavirus vaccinations being given to children and young people, citing a claim that there have been a record number of reports of harmful side effects from the jab.

For its part, the 'Save the Children' site released a statement (in Finnish) saying that the similarity of the two organisations' names was "very unfortunate" and emphasised that it was not involved in any way with the anti-vaccine campaign.

Jarno Limnéll, Professor of cybersecurity at Aalto University, told Yle that he considered the anti-vaccination Pelastetaan lapset group to be fundamentally suspicious and that the name was likely chosen deliberately to cause confusion.

"I think the choice of this confusing name was intentional. I find it very unfortunate," Limnéll said, adding that he has closely followed the international debate on vaccine disinformation and wonders what lessons Finland can learn from it.

Anti-vaccine campaign information is "misleading"

Vaccine specialist Mika Rämet of the Vaccine Research Centre at the University of Tampere told Yle that the statements made by the 'Let's Save the Children' group are incorrect and misleading, whether intentionally or unintentionally so.

"But it is intentional to present the vaccination of children and young people as being a bad thing," he said.

He added that all of the information on the organisation's website is misleading, citing one example of a claim made by the group that the World Health Organization (WHO) would not recommend vaccination for 12-15-year-olds.

"That's not true. The WHO has outlined that the vaccine can be given to young people aged 12 years and up. Earlier, the WHO stated that vaccination of at-risk groups aged 12-15 is ok," Rämet said, adding that the anti-vaccination campaigners make a number of distorted interpretations about the vaccine's levels of protection against the virus as well as inaccurate information about the vaccine's marketing authorisations by regulators.

"Firstly there is always a conditional marketing authorisation. That's a normal sales route. And when it comes to vaccine protection, the study figures are deliberately interpreted in such a way that the importance of the vaccine seems to be kept to a minimum," Rämet explained.

In a post on his blog (in Finnish) on the subject, Rämet said the anti-vaccine campaign had also deliberately misrepresented reports of side effects caused by coronavirus vaccines. On its website, the 'Let's Save the Children' group claims that there have been numerous reports of serious side effects caused by the vaccine, but Rämet argued that the number of reports was not the most important factor.

"The number of adverse reactions does not indicate harmfulness, but it is more important to follow what types of reports come from there," he wrote.

Rämet further advised that it is important to consider who is conveying the information, especially online, and what their agenda might be. The anti-vaccine groups seem to be well organised, he said, but such groups and their motives themselves are unclear.

"Who has an interest in making vaccine coverage as poor as possible in Finland and recovering from the epidemic as difficult as possible?" he asks.

Anti-vaccine group hiding behind email

On its website, 'Let's Save the Children' writes that the its name was not deliberately chosen because of a similarity to the internationally-recognised charity, and that no offence was intended towards 'Save the Children'.

Yle requested an interview with the administrators of 'Let's Save the Children', but they replied that they only respond as a group via email.

The group's website does not provide any contact phone numbers and does not reveal who is responsible for which tasks.

An unidentified individual, who introduced themselves as a physician representing 'Let's Save the Children', did reply to Yle via email, however.

"The reason for the team's cautiousness, and the preference for email, is so that none of us would be the target of a hate speech campaign and also enable the group to reflect on our responses to a scientifically-honed standard and that everyone can stand behind them," the email said.

The site strongly implied that doctors and medical professionals support its message, with a list of "petition signatories" on the front page.

Yle checked the backgrounds of all the healthcare professionals mentioned from the public register of social welfare and healthcare workers Julki Terhikki, updated by the National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health Valvira.

Yle found that two doctors on the list have had their right to practice medicine restricted, and it was not possible to fully verify the qualifications of every individual listed by the group because there are people with the same name listed within the register.

Disinformation intended to "cause confusion"

According to cybersecurity professor Limnéll, the website is clearly designed and presented in order to influence people's opinions.

"A familiar-sounding name is used and medical experts with their titles are introduced," he said, adding that it always raises suspicions when a site does not have any contact information or are intentionally hidden.

"When this website has a questionable name that is clearly intended to be confusing and there is no proper contact information, then yes it suggests that everything is not quite right," Limnéll said.

"It is good that the issue of vaccines is being discussed and different perspectives are being brought into the debate. But then responsibility must be remembered, in terms of pursuing the truth and sharing factual information. One must be prepared for a civilised discussion, even if one disagrees," he said.

Disinformation is intended to cause confusion, Limnéll added, and many such scam sites can be very professionally presented and designed in the modern online world, even if their underlying motives are difficult to ascertain.

He said it is most important to always be critically aware of all sources, as the origin of the information is crucial.

"Where has the information come from, where is it published and does it have scientific relevance? Which parties reported on the research and with what motivation," Limnéll said.

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