How citizens fight against the fake news of vaccines on Covid-19:

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Faced with the massive dissemination of false information on vaccination, several citizens groups are working to inform Internet users. And these activists from civil society no longer count their hours. Testimonials.

Fake news takes the elevator, but the truth often takes the stairs."  Antoine Daoust goes into the real estate metaphor to describe the information dissemination circuit in times of Covid-19. Since February, this blogger has been "debunking"  false information on a platform with the Hollywood name,  FactandFurious.com. Graphene oxide is allegedly present in Pfizer's vaccine, undesirable effects considered to be unusual, speeches by anti-vaccine activists ... The  "independent fact-checking and current affairs" site has made itself a specialty monitoring information on vaccines against Covid-19.

It was after wandering "in the worst" bowels of YouTube during the pandemic that this former soldier went to the front  "to denounce disinformation", helped by two acquaintances who met online. A pandemic that served as a "trigger", just like the hospitalization of his brother-in-law, a victim of the virus. To this day, the initiative remains voluntary - despite some advertising revenue  - while the site has just been recognized as an "online press service".

In recent months, other citizen groups have been formed to fight against fake news around the pandemic. They are called "Les Vaxxeuses", "No Fake Med", "Stop anti-vaccine propaganda" ... Their credo: the publication of sourced information and a maximum of pedagogy on social networks.

"Belief is resistant to facts"

Member of the collective "Les Vaxxeuses", a hyperactive account on Facebook and Twitter (12,000 subscribers), Marie * is an ardent advocate of vaccines. The 41-year-old bank employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, even participated in a clinical trial in France: "I lent my body to science for vaccines and I am very, very proud of it." His group of "fifteen" citizens "from all professional backgrounds", including four doctors in biology, was born in 2017 during the debates on the extension of compulsory vaccination of children against eleven diseases. Infiltrated into groups of "anti-tax" activists, they share and correct the infox in a willingly mocking tone.  This is their "trademark", explains Marie.

"This vaccine [against Covid-19] has brought new theories that we did not have with other vaccines, continues Marie to franceinfo. The other vaccines, according to these theories, are supposed to cause multiple sclerosis, Macrophage myofasciitis  [a disease of the tissues] . The Covid-19 vaccine is supposed to turn us into GMOs, make us pick up 5G , make us magnetic. "

Like Marie, Patricia also tries to correct info, as a host with five other volunteers of the Facebook page "Stop anti-vaccine propaganda", launched in 2017.  "We felt the wave coming, it was even so tiring that I was close to burn-out, " testifies the 52-year-old lawyer, who admits spending " three to four hours a day, sometimes even part of the night "  arguing in long threads of comments. "I was naive at first.  I thought to myself that if people thought these things, it was because they were misinformed, uninformed. I thought that by trying to popularize information, people would come back. in the factual. But I was seriously wrong. Belief is resistant to facts ", she laments.

"Learn to disentangle the true from the false"

Sometimes, however, she receives testimonials from people who have changed their minds. "We are not addressing the 'antivax', the hardcore who do not understand. We are addressing this fringe of the population who hesitates, is a little worried. It is winnable, with time, from the pedagogy."

Behind this mobilization, which is as altruistic as it is time-consuming, the citizens' groups are unanimous: their work fills a void left by the State. "It could be done by institutions, ministerial or interministerial groups. But they do not do it, for lack of resources or of will" , asserts Cyril Vidal, president of the collective "No Fake Med", made up of 200 members, including two third-party health professionals identifiable on Twitter under the eponymous hashtag.

However, there are bodies supposed to supervise abuses such as the Interministerial Mission for vigilance and the fight against sectarian abuses (Miviludes), but which  "does not have enough resources", regrets this dental surgeon. "And despite the calls to order from the Council of the Order of Physicians (Cnom) and our complaint, [the deputy and psychiatrist] Martine Wonner continues to knowingly disseminate bad information ", regrets Cyril Vidal .

For "Les Vaxxeuses", the problem also lies in the "gaps in scientific education".  "We should teach fact-checking more in middle and high schools. We really have to teach young people to disentangle the truth from the false on the Internet", calls Marie of her wishes.

Moreover, "there is too little moderation in the mainstream media" accuses Patricia, faced with the presence of too many "anti-tax" comments on press articles shared online. Worse: "Les Vaxxeuses" and "No Fake Med" claim to have seen their accounts suspended several times by Facebook. "We share pearls of lies on our page by adding an explanatory header to them. But Facebook accuses us of making disinformation: we had a three-day publication ban on the page less than two months ago" , reports Marie.

"Share verified knowledge"

Correcting fake news instead of institutions is also a way of appearing independent of power: "With all the conspiratorial remarks one can have on the links forged by the government, an independent body like ours, which makes declarations of absence of conflict of interest, can be important to have a dialogue " , analyzes Cyril Vidal of" No Fake Med ".

Nevertheless, one question remains: without scientific background validated by specialized studies, how to appear credible in the eyes of the public? Patricia found the solution: all answers are "verified by our group and we give sources". And this,  "whoever the writer is," explains the lawyer, who says she also relies on fact-checking articles published in the press.

"Everyone has a say in what has been learned from science," supports Dr Cyril Vidal, whose legitimacy is not, according to him, greater than that of citizens who do not operate in the health sector. "The important thing is that everyone participates in sharing verified knowledge in health."

"We are nauseous"

But this work is not without difficulty: on social networks, it is bitter violence that is expressed. "We are infiltrated into several groups [of anti-vaccine activists], " says Antoine Daoust of "Fact and Furious". "I guarantee you it gets nauseous at the end of the day, when you see people railing their hatred against the government, calling for doctors to guillotine. It makes me sick."

Patricia, ended up cracking up, faced with the "raids"  launched by anti-vaccine activists against her page, her too many hours spent on the web, and "threats" - sometimes death -, although she chose to in order to maintain anonymity. "Sometimes they come in a bunch, they attack us in order. We answer we respond and we pass the baton. But often, I would wake up with a start at night, afraid that a pain in the ass might have written something."

But the committed citizen did not completely lay down her arms. At the beginning of July, Patricia reunited with her fellow fact-checkers on the island of Noirmoutier for "a weekend of reunion and relaxation".  The opportunity also to meet the new recruits. And to welcome the birth of a new site to fight against disinformation, BigPragma, the result of a union with "Les Vaxxeuses" which took shape in June. 


Also published on Medium.

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