While Canadian health authorities fight back against what Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam has called “an infodemic” — the spread of false information about the COVID-19 pandemic — others are working just as hard to target the public with conspiracy theories.
Marketplace journalists took part in a U.S. COVID-19 conspiracy “boot camp,” where aspiring activists — including the leader of one of Canada’s prominent misinformation campaigns — learn tactics of persuasion to sow seeds of doubt about information coming from public health authorities.
Sherri Tenpenny, a Cleveland, Ohio-based osteopath and self-proclaimed grandmother of the anti-vaccination movement in the U.S., runs the six-week online course. She has hundreds of thousands of followers on social media and has appeared on popular far-right conspiracy podcasts, such as Infowars.
CBC journalists signed up for the $623 Mastering Vaccine Info Boot Camp to find out exactly what was being sold to her students.
“You’re in our choir,” Tenpenny told the class. It’s those who are on the fence who need to hear the message, she said.
“My job is to teach the 400 of you in the class … so each one of you go out and teach 1,000,” she said, encouraging students to “practise in front of a mirror.”
“My job and your job and everybody else who does this, their job is to sow seeds,” she said in a separate YouTube video promoting the boot camp.
“We’re going to build an entire army to stand up and say not only, ‘No,’ but ‘Hell, no.'”
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‘Manipulation and persuasion’
The boot camp’s course material is primarily taught by Tenpenny herself, who explains her theories on the immune system, vaccines and COVID-19, often contradicting scientific consensus on the topics.
The communication tactics are taught primarily by Tenpenny’s business partner, Matthew Hunt, who gives advice on how to ensure students connect with people on a personal level as a persuasion tactic.
“Understanding the subjective human experience and how each individual stores their VERSION of information is key to unlocking their mind and building trust … and successfully affecting change with them,” his course material reads.
His lessons also encourage students to recognize what type of persuasion tactic is most effective for the individual based on the way the person talks. He slots them into four categories and presents different persuasion strategies for each.
“It is about manipulation and persuasion and convincing people of something to simply get them on their side,” said Krishana Sankar, science communications lead with COVID-19 Resources Canada, a digital source for up-to-date scientific information on COVID-19.
She’s part of a team that helps dispel misinformation during nightly Q&A video calls that are open to the public.
“It’s extremely frustrating because we are constantly trying to educate people on what’s real.”
Sankar is a “science communicator,” one of a growing field of experts whose aim is to explain complex scientific concepts in ways that are easy to understand without a science background.
Her work with COVID-19 Resources Canada includes hosting daily video calls where she and other experts, including physicians, pharmacists and scientists, can answer questions from the public directly.
She says she was very concerned to learn that misinformation campaigns like Tenpenny’s are actively targeting people with questions about vaccines and the pandemic.
“This kind of rhetoric and this kind of misinformation can be extremely dangerous for people’s health, especially when it’s taken under advisement from people who have no expertise,” she said.
“We need to have a large percentage of the population be vaccinated, and without that, we are unable to move forward from this pandemic.”
Participants from Canada, India, Europe
Tenpenny told CBC in a statement that she stands behind the content of her boot camp and that she “won’t apologize for earning a living.”
The anti-vaccination movement was a lucrative industry before the pandemic, enabling some people to make money through speeches, conferences and donations from individuals who trust the organizers of such events. Now, COVID-19 conspiracists are taking a page out of the same playbook.
Organizers of the course attended by CBC journalists said that 400 people had signed up, which at $623 per student, adds up to almost $250,000 in course fees.
The course was the eighth of its kind since 2017, with the preceding ones focused on anti-vaccination information while the recent session was COVID-19-specific.
It included participants from Canada, Europe, India, the Philippines and, according to Tenpenny, 18 physicians from South Africa.
Tenpenny also has other ways of making money from her students, selling additional courses and even getting a referral commission from a private lab that gives her $10 for every $100 spent on vitamin-deficiency tests, a fact she mentions in one of her seminars.
Tenpenny falsely claims that the reason some people have more serious illness from COVID-19 is because they are vitamin-deficient. She also asserts that taking vitamins can be a cure for COVID-19-positive patients.
“They take some vitamin C, D and A, some herbal medicine, some homeopathy, and they’re fine,” she said in one of her YouTube videos. She told students she sells vitamins on her website during one of her seminars.
WATCH | Boot camp participants get tried in persuasion tactics:
Message spreading in Canada
Marketplace journalists heard this claim repeated in an interview with one of Tenpenny’s former students, Vladislav Sobolev.
Sobolev is the founder of Hugs Over Masks, a Facebook group with more than 10,000 members that’s been behind some of the anti-mask and anti-lockdown protests that have taken place across Canada.
Sobolev partnered with Tenpenny last year to arrange a group of his Hugs Over Masks followers to take the training. He says he’s now organizing “activist training” of his own.
“Rather than trying to convince [society] and bring them to your side, the best thing that we can do is plant the seed of doubt,” said Sobolev.
He says the aim of the training is to spread the message and “defend our way of life.”
“Nobody should be forced to wear the mask. Nobody should be forced to do a test, or ultimately, get a vaccine.”
The core messages conveyed in the boot camp are that vaccines are dangerous and COVID-19 is not, with Tenpenny pointing to what she sees as a high survival rate for COVID-19 and equating the virus with the annual flu.
“Mortality’s only one measure of danger,” said Colin Furness, an epidemiologist with the University of Toronto.
“A lot of people who survived COVID do so with extensive brain damage, heart damage, lung damage, kidney damage.”
Furness also noted that, “more people died of COVID in 10 months than died of influenza in Alberta in 10 years.”
Hackers eyeing vaccine passports, instructor says
In one of the boot camp seminars, Hunt discussed conversations he has had with computer hackers who he says are sympathetic to the cause promoted in the boot camp and want to figure out how to hack digital vaccine passports that some countries might use so that unvaccinated people could circumvent vaccination requirements.
The passports don’t exist in Canada yet, but the European Union Commission has already announced its proposal for what it is calling “digital green certificates,” which would allow vaccinated individuals to travel between countries in the EU before the borders officially reopen post-pandemic.
“In the background, these are what the hacker-cracker folks that are really pissed about this are working on,” Hunt said during one of the seminars, noting that he hopes they will succeed.
Hunt told CBC in a statement that he is not involved in any hacking or subversion of any systems himself, nor would he support it. However, he said he “can certainly understand why such groups would focus attention in that direction and why they discussed such workarounds.”
The anti-vaccination community has circumvented rules before, sharing names of outlier doctors who are willing to be paid for vaccine-exemption notes, for example.
The fact that some members of that movement are now talking to hackers about vaccine passports concerns Furness, whose research expertise includes information technology and its effect on health behaviour change.
“That’s engaging in what looks like possibly a criminal conspiracy to put people at risk,” said Furness. “It’s going to have an impact on vulnerable people who didn’t sign up for this but who may get sick as a result.”
Judge the expert before the information
Sankar, the science communicator, says that in order to avoid falling into a misinformation echo chamber, people should first consider whether the person sharing the information is qualified to do so.
“Do they have any kind of expertise? How long have they been in this area? Who are they affiliated with?” she said. “Those are really important pieces to understand and know about the person you’re getting information from.”
She also warns that people should be wary of absolute or overly definitive language, which scientists usually avoid.
Furness thinks it’s important that those spreading COVID-19 conspiracies not be left to their own devices.
“In order to defeat COVID, we’ve all got to be rowing in the same direction,” he said. “It’s not enough to say, ‘Everyone [can] choose what they want to think about COVID.’
“We really need to see it … as a problem that needs to be solved together.”
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