Anti-vaxxers have mocked and smeared V-Day heroine Margaret Keenan on social media sites amid a surge of ‘toxic misinformation’.
A mob of online conspiracy theorists – some claiming to be NHS staff – used Facebook to spread slurs about the 91-year-old grandmother and her family after she became the first in the world to have the Pfizer Covid-19 jab outside medical trials.
Calling her a ‘guinea pig’ and an ‘actress’, the anti-vaxxers accused her of making a Masonic sign and of having been given a placebo as a marketing ploy. The wild claims have been widely shared despite being rejected as groundless by independent health experts.
Research suggests there are now 5.35million followers of anti-vaccination accounts across social media in the UK – raising fears about take-up of jabs. The study, carried out by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which has offices in Washington and London, accused social media firms of facilitating the anti-vaxxers.
A mob of online conspiracy theorists – some claiming to be NHS staff – used Facebook to spread slurs about the 91-year-old grandmother and her family after Margaret Keenan (pictured) became the first in the world to have the Pfizer Covid-19 jab outside medical trials
Campaigners for the elderly have noted a worrying increase in families saying they will not give consent for relatives in homes to have the vaccine – and some staff have said they will refuse it. Vaccine minister Nadhim Zahawi has warned of the impact of conspiracy theories being shared online after a study found people from ethnic minorities are significantly less likely to get the jab. More than 137,000 Britons were vaccinated against coronavirus in the first week of the jab being available.
But on the first day, former care worker Louise Hampton posted a link to a report about Mrs Keenan to her 18,000 Facebook followers with the comment: ‘Shame on Margaret’s Family for allowing this!!!! Using Granny as a guinea pig! Maggie’s jab is merely a MARKETING PLOY!!’
Louise Hampton, a former Care UK employee, quit before she was sacked in September
She also falsely suggested that Mrs Keenan had been injected with a placebo.
Her rantings were greeted with a string of supportive comments, including one from Kyle Brown, who wrote: ‘Went to my mum’s care home today to make sure she wasn’t given it, she has dementia but is still bright enough not to wear a mask or take a vaccine.’
In a broadcast on Facebook which was viewed over 14,000 times, Miss Hampton repeated her claims about Mrs Keenan and bizarrely added that the pensioner was making a Masonic symbol. She confessed ‘I have no proof on this, no facts’ but went on to insist: ‘I’m just joining the dots.’
Miss Hampton, from Uxbridge in west London, worked for Care UK as a 111 health adviser but quit before she was sacked in September after posting a video claiming coronavirus was a hoax and saying she did ‘f*** all’ during the pandemic.
The video drew nearly 500,000 hits, despite Care UK pointing out it had actually handled 400 per cent more calls at the peak of the crisis. Since then Miss Hampton has flooded her Facebook page with false claims, denouncing mothers ready to inoculate their children and even comparing the vaccination programme to the rise of Nazism.
Her rants have found a large audience, with her Facebook followers jumping 3,000 in late November to more than 19,000.
Similar slurs were included in a private anti-vax Facebook group aimed at NHS workers.
There are also posts on the closed Facebook group ‘NHS workers for choice, no restrictions for declining a vaccine’ which accuse Mrs Keenan of being an actress, lying about her age and making a masonic sign (left)
In a series of posts, the group cast doubt on Mrs Keenan’s age and accused her of being a ‘crisis actor for propaganda’ because of her vague similarity to another woman pictured at a protest.
Another prominent anti-vaxxer, Dr Bruce Scott, used Twitter to brand the vaccine programme ‘unethical and criminal’. The psychoanalyst retweeted suggestions that the Prime Minister might one day be convicted of genocide for ‘pushing the unsafe approval of vaccines’.
A survey by market research company Kantar found that while 75 per cent of UK residents are likely to accept a jab, only 42 per cent said they would definitely do so.
Jayne Connery, of the Care Campaign of the Vulnerable, said: ‘Families are coming to us saying they’re not going to consent to their loved ones being given the vaccine and, surprisingly, staff are as well.
‘I can’t speak for the nation, but the general consensus of our supporters is “No, we’re not going to do it”. I’m shocked at the responses I’ve had.
‘Everybody has to make their own choice, but there’s been a lot of intolerance on our social media pages, a backlash, including abusive messages aimed at people who are giving their loved ones the vaccine.
‘My mother has already passed away, so I don’t have to make this decision, but if she was alive would I give it to her? Hell yes, if it meant I could go and see her.’
Heidi Larson, who runs the Vaccine Confidence Project, a research group at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, says vaccine uptake will be ‘much more of a challenge than is recognised’.
The project said anti-vaxxers were targeting a growing group of ‘fence sitters’ who are uncertain about the Covid jab.
Imran Ahmed, of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said: ‘The toxic misinformation we see swirling around social media is affecting real families and threatening public safety. Users need to be aware that social media is an unsafe environment to get information about healthcare.
‘Social media companies allow professional snake oil salesmen and ideologues to spout lies online which reach millions of people. Technology companies could be responsible for a huge missed opportunity to contain coronavirus and avoid further death.
‘This needs to be a wake-up call for Government, which is failing to hold tech companies to account.’
Just 57 per cent of black, Asian and minority ethnic people said they would get the jab compared with 79 per cent of white people, according to a study from the Royal Society for Public Health.
Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Royal Society for Public Health said some anti-vaccination messages had been specifically targeted at certain ethnic and religious communities.
After being alerted by the Mail, Facebook said it would investigate the smears against Mrs Keenan published on its site.
A spokesman added: ‘We remove Covid-19 misinformation that could lead to imminent physical harm, such as incorrect claims about cures or false information about approved vaccines.
‘Between March and October we removed more than 12million pieces of this type of content on Facebook and Instagram.
‘We also ban adverts that include vaccine hoaxes or discourage people from getting a vaccine and put warning labels over vaccine posts marked as false by third party fact checkers.’
Twitter said that since May 2019 it has had a prompt that directs individuals to credible vaccine information from the NHS when someone searches for terms associated with vaccines.