Analysis & Comment

Opinion | A Trove of Intelligence Reports Reveal New York’s Fight Against Vaccine Disinformation

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By Mara Gay

Ms. Gay is a member of the editorial board

For nearly a year now, a small team of officials from City Hall and the public health department have pored over detailed reports about how vaccine misinformation has spread through New York City.

A review of over eight months worth of these “misinformation bulletins” obtained by The Times reveals that the city has collected exhaustive intelligence about the misunderstandings and conspiracy theories surrounding Covid-19 and swirling through the five boroughs. The project aimed to help tailor Covid-19 vaccine drives to New York’s diverse and sometimes insular communities and beat back the virus to push the city toward normalcy.

The misinformation reports — the vast majority of which come from public social media posts — also offer a fascinating historical accounting: a glimpse into what New Yorkers were reading, watching and at times misunderstanding about the disease that upended their city.

Overall, the effort is a case study in what effective city government can do, and what public health demands in 2021.

The reports were only necessary because not everyone has been rooting for the coronavirus to lose.

In January and February of this year, the city found leaflets aimed at the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn that wrongly suggested the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines could change a person’s DNA and were only 0.5 percent effective.

In March, the city’s Polish community was treated to false claims that the mRNA vaccines were designed to “annihilate Christianity and the Polish Nation.” A city report in March described a rumor prevalent in New York’s Haitian neighborhoods that the vaccines were created to reduce the Black population.

In July, the project’s analysts were monitoring vaccine misinformation being shared by the writer Alex Berenson, a former New York Times employee. In August, the analysts made note of “misleading” claims by Oren Barzilay, who heads the union representing the Fire Department’s emergency medical workers.

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