Following her participation at the 2023 Golden Globe Awards, Selena Gomez appeared to respond to trolls.
The 30-year-old singer went live on Instagram after the award ceremony, which she attended with her nine-year-old sister Gracie.
James Hazell, a friend and coworker of British radio DJ Tim Gough, had no time to grieve when Gough departed dead unexpectedly during a broadcast in October 2022 before the trolling started. They did not even give him a chance to become chilly. They were direct with some disgusting messages,” Hazell claims.
Following Gough’s death, which was claimed to be the result of a suspected heart attack, anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists seized the opportunity to spread misinformation and hatred on his Twitter and Instagram accounts. “Avoid worrying. Safe and incredibly powerful. Perfect for assisted suicide as well!!!!,” one Twitter user wrote.
Another wrote, “Death vax.” In Suffolk, UK, where he and Hazell worked, Gough’s accounts and the GenX Radio Twitter feed were “besieged with hate,” according to Hazell. They appeared to be unconcerned with the fact that a person was actually dying.
Numerous unexpected deaths and medical emergencies, including Gough’s, have been used by anti-vaccine activists to support their unsupported assertion that Covid shots are to blame.
They have employed this strategy in the past, but study by experts in disinformation reveals that since Elon Musk acquired control of Twitter in October 2022, when misinformation about Covid-19 was no longer policed and thousands of banned accounts were reinstated, the narrative has been amplified.
A misinformation specialist at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Timothy Graham, claims that it has “opened the floodgates for conspiracy theories and misinformation.”
When WIRED contacted Twitter for comment, they did not answer. According to reports, the corporation no longer has a media team.
The news of many high-profile deaths, like that of singer Terry Hall from the British ska band The Specials in December, has drawn the attention of conspiracy theorists in recent months.
A purported heart attack—in reality, a panic attack—suffered by musician Rod Stewart’s 11-year-old son and an eye issue that put vocalist Tom Fletcher of the pop band McFly in the ICU are just two of the illnesses that have been unjustly linked to the vaccine. Anti-vaxxers falsely asserted in January 2023 that the musician Lisa-Marie Presley’s alleged heart attack death was brought on by her having received the vaccine.
NFL player Damar Hamlin’s mid-game cardiac arrest and subsequent collapse in January in the US sparked a wave of conspiracy theories that linked his condition to Covid-vaccine-induced myocarditis. Although several vaccines have been linked to heart inflammation, experts note that these occurrences are few and typically transient.
They also note that Covid alone is more likely to result in myocarditis than the vaccine. Studies also show that long before the introduction of the vaccines, cardiac arrest was a major factor in athletes’ unexplained deaths. There are allegedly still tests being done to determine what caused Hamlin’s cardiac arrest.
Anti-vaxxers have circulated montage videos and social media posts showing athletes passing out throughout the outbreak. However, the issue has gotten worse on the site under Musk, with data collated by Graham showing that since the beginning of December of last year, the average number of hourly “dead suddenly” tweets has at least doubled.
According to Graham, “the’sudden deaths’ cliche is likely the most salient of the misleading Covid narratives circulating now, and the most harmful from a public health standpoint,” warning that it can result in vaccine refusal or hesitancy, which may increase the number of deaths from the virus.
Following Twitter’s lifting of its ban on spreading false health information, Graham oversaw research that indicated a spike in Covid disinformation on the social media site in November and early December. More than 326,000 tweets and retweets including “died suddenly” or “#DiedSuddenly” have been sent since January 1, according to Graham’s latest data, with a spike of 5,000 in an hour on January 3.
Graham claims that Musk has sent a message that Twitter is a safe space for damaging Covid conspiracy theories by restoring suspended accounts.
Peter McCullough, a well-known vaccination opponent and cardiologist, was previously banned after posting disputed Covid claims; he has since pushed the sudden death myth on Twitter.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which keeps track of misinformation, claims that Twitter’s new method for authenticating accounts has contributed to the network becoming a “breeding ground for misinformation.” Users received blue “verified” checkmarks before Musk took over if the firm considered them to be important voices. Twitter started letting eligible users purchase verification in November for $8 a month, which gave them access to additional services and conversational priority.
Prior to the takeover, Twitter collaborated with news organizations to spot false conversations and the site prioritized noteworthy content from reputable sources. Since then, it has introduced the Community Notes function, which enables users to contextualize tweets.
Nearly 60,000 tweets were analyzed by CCDH between November 9, when the new verification system went live, and December 12, and it was discovered that 30% of tweets from Twitter Blue users including the word “vaccine” contained false material.
Blue checks that were purchased may have contributed to the accounts that helped promote the popular movie Died Suddenly. The film had its premiere on November 21 and was produced by Stew Peters, a right-wing radio presenter known for promoting conspiracies.
Its claims that Covid vaccinations are killing people en masse have been largely refuted. Its content wove together dozens of news items about people who passed away unexpectedly with montages of people collapsing. Gough’s death was one of the deaths that was clearly unrelated to vaccination among those mentioned. More than 2 million people watched the movie on Twitter, and other posts on the niche video site Rumble included links to it.
Through their profiles, users can see how Twitter accounts earned the checkmark, although it’s not immediately clear when scrolling material. According to CCDH CEO Imran Ahmed, “when a piece of propaganda gets a blue tick next to it, people assume it’s something that at the very least has acquired popularity on merit.” “Died Suddenly has not become well-known via quality.”
In response to WIRED’s request for comment, Peters remained silent.
After the movie’s premiere, the hashtag #DiedSuddenly became popular on Twitter, where it is currently accompanied by tens of thousands of tweets regarding fatalities.
By serving as a focal point for other conspiracies and those who support them, Died Suddenly had a substantial impact on the propagation of false information about Covid, according to QUT’s investigation. According to Graham, allowing the movie to spread unchecked on Twitter leads to a “snowball effect” in which networks of interconnected groups and false narratives become visible, organize, and grow rapidly.
Conspiracy theories that spread unchecked in the wake of unexpected events may deter people from getting immunized and may also make grieving families feel worse.
A journalist from the US named Victoria Brownworth came under fire on Twitter when she announced that her wife Maddy had passed away unexpectedly on November 12 following a battle with cancer. When Brownworth returned from work, “there were hundreds and hundreds of people in my’mentions.'” “I just couldn’t believe someone could do that to someone who was grieving, who had just lost someone,” she said. “I was in a very delicate position.”
Brownworth, a vocal vaccine supporter on Twitter who frequently criticizes out other users for peddling incorrect information, claims that the release of Died abruptly made the trolling worse. She admits, “I was just so overwhelmed.” Many of them said, “Well she deserved it because… I had made [Maddy],” because for some of them, it wasn’t enough to simply declare that she received the vaccination.
GenX Radio’s Hazell admits that before experiencing it directly with Gough’s family, he was unaware that social media trolls were “that weaponized and active.” It was the worst thing that could have happened to a nice, calm family who had recently lost their father. These Twitter users further exacerbate the problem by adding insult to injury.