How a small town BC council meeting became a source of COVID-19 misinformation around the world

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The city of Dawson Creek, B.C., home to about 12,000 people near the B.C.-Alberta border, removed a previously posted portion of a recent city council meeting video after it has started circulating in COVID-19 disinformation groups around the world.

The incident illustrates why everyone, including small communities, needs to think more deeply about who it gives a platform, says a disinformation expert.

The portion of the video that was deleted featured several speakers at the council meeting making false or misleading statements about COVID-19 vaccines and their effectiveness.

Speakers arrived at city hall ahead of the council meeting to protest the BC government’s recent announcement of a vaccination card program, which restricts access to recreational and social activities not essential for people who can provide proof of vaccination.

The meeting, held on September 2, was called to clarify the program’s impact on city facilities such as the swimming pool and curling rink, Mayor Dale Bumstead said, without discussing the merits of the vaccination card. or the vaccination itself.

But outside City Hall, around 100 people angry at the vaccination card held signs and demanded to speak.

A September 2 live Facebook broadcast features people gathered outside Dawson Creek City Hall to protest the province’s immunization card program. (Facebook)

The board therefore decided to let some of them make short presentations before the regular meeting. Bumstead said it was not an effort to endorse their ideas, but to allow them to be heard as members of the community he was elected to represent.

“We had no way of verifying or even identifying some of the information and the people speaking, as it was on the spur of the moment,” he said.

False comparisons with the Holocaust

Things have not started smoothly. Ahead of the meeting, police were called to respond to several protesters who refused to wear a mask inside the council chamber, a requirement under public health guidelines.

In a video broadcast live on Facebook by one of the protesters, police can be seen escorting one man as another begins to shout, “Brown shirts! Later, members of the crowd joined them, calling the RCMP “Nazis” and “Gestapo”.

The video drew condemnation from both Prime Minister John Horgan and the Center for Israel and Jewish Affairs, which said that comparing British Columbia’s public health policy with “systematic identification, humiliation , the persecution and murder of Jews and millions of others is absurd, dangerous and disrespectful. “

In the boardroom, several presenters made similar arguments, comparing British Columbia’s voluntary vaccination map to 1930s Germany and sharing false information about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

Now one of those presentations is being posted on multiple social media platforms by anti-vaccination groups, racking up tens of thousands of views.

The presentation in question was made by a woman who, in local small business listings, identifies herself as the owner of an “alternative clinic” which uses “energy healing” and “psychic readings” as well as herbal teas and essential oils to help customers.

But during her presentation to the board, she said she was a “molecular biologist” without specifying her credentials. She falsely called vaccines a “genetic experiment” with a high death rate, when in reality they are the result of years of research and have been safely distributed to millions of people around the world after passing several clinical trials.

At the end of the presentation, the mayor thanked the woman for her time, and she thanked him for listening.

And that, Bumstead thought, was the end – the council then voted to follow public health guidelines and adjourned.

But then the city staff did what they do at every meeting: They uploaded it to the city’s YouTube page, where the woman’s presentation took on a life of its own.

“They bring in a fake expert”

At first, people just shared a direct link to the entire board meeting.

But soon after, some users started to extract the woman’s presentation and share it on their own. A YouTube user with over 21,000 subscribers cut his speech and uploaded it to his channel, where he racked up over 200,000 views.

The video has also been posted to Twitter, TikTok, and Facebook, as well as alternative sites popular with anti-vaccine users. In most articles the woman is referred to as a molecular biologist, while in some she is mistakenly identified as a doctor. Few mention her true profession as a natural healer and medium.

Ahmed Al-Rawi, an assistant professor at Simon Fraser University who specializes in disinformation, said it was a common technique among anti-vaccine groups – inflating or inventing credentials of people denouncing health measures public in an attempt to give their views a false sense of credibility.

“They bring in a bogus expert who will provide evidence contrary to scientific consensus to question the validity of public health policies,” he said.

Part of the Dawson Creek City Council meeting spreading COVID-19 disinformation has been viewed over 260,000 times in a single YouTube clip and has also been posted to Facebook, Twitter and TikTok. (Youtube)

Al-Rawi compared the technique to past efforts to undermine consensus science surrounding climate change or the dangers of smoking. These efforts don’t always have to be planned, he said – people can search the internet for videos like the Dawson Creek council meeting that can be reused to meet their needs.

“They select the information… in order to convince others that they are right.”

Al-Rawi said the presence of the video on the city’s official website gave it additional credibility, as did the appearance of the Dawson Creek logo and the presenter speaking inside the council chamber. . With no context as to why she was allowed to speak, he said, the setting added a sense of legitimacy to what she was saying, no matter how incorrect the content was.

No more impromptu sessions

As the number of views on the video increased, the Dawson Creek council also came under scrutiny for giving anti-vaccine protesters a platform to speak out in the first place. .

Bumstead said town hall staff were inundated with calls from people across North America about the video, some happy with what they saw, others upset that allowed the dissemination of false claims without control.

After several weeks, a city councilor issued a public apology on her Facebook page. “I am deeply concerned that if in any way I allowed the disinformation to be taken as fact and disseminated via social media via a delegation to the council,” she wrote. , and encouraged residents to get vaccinated.

Likewise, Bumstead said he was upset by the “turmoil” the video caused, and last week a decision was made to remove all impromptu videos of the speakers from the town’s YouTube page.

The official reason, Bumstead said, was that none of the speakers had properly requested to make their presentations to the board, nor were they properly vetted or identified in advance, so they were ultimately not considered as part of the official meeting.

But other videos outside the city’s control are still circulating, illustrating why officials need to think more deeply about who they are giving a platform to, Al-Rawi said.

In years past, he said, board meetings were seen only by those who could attend in person. Now they can be recorded, edited and redistributed to millions of people around the world.

“They need to be more literate on how to deal with these issues.”

For his part, Bumstead said he still believes in the importance of listening to people with differing opinions, but the whole episode left him “disappointed and hurt.” Going forward, he said he would not consider allowing impromptu presentations from members of the public on any topic.

“We were trying to be lenient,” he said. “But it just created a tremendous amount of extra work.”



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