Paid actors, fake numbers and bribery: How conspiracy is stalling Alberta’s vaccination efforts

CALGARY –

Misinformation about the pandemic and COVID-19 vaccinations has surged in Alberta, alongside a deadly fourth wave.

Research suggests thousands in the province have fallen victim to conspiracy, much of it amplified through American social media accounts and Conservative-leaning content channels. 

“There’s this vaccine hesitancy narrative that is around safety and efficacy, and there is a lot of misinformation on those things,” said researcher Jean-Christophe Boucher.

“There’s also an argument attached around mistrust in the institution and a concern for freedom.”

Boucher is part of a group analyzing and studying social media activity around the pandemic. The team looks at more than two million tweets a week to compare and contrast those who are pro-vaccine and those who are against the shot. 

“A lot of the vaccine hesitance in Canada is attached and connected to Conservative influencers on social media,” he told CTV News. “In the grand scheme of things, we find that Conservative political elites haven’t been as aggressive in promoting vaccination as they should have.”

Boucher says a lot of the misinformation around safety and mandate-related freedom in the province originates from accounts in the United States and the United Kingdom. 

WILLING TO PAY

Calgary physician Dr. Mukarram Zaidi says he has seen the mistrust and vaccine conspiracy spread firsthand. 

“I’ve heard it all,” he said. “(From) ‘oh, this shot was developed in a few weeks or months so I don’t trust it,’ (to) ‘there is no COVID. COVID doesn’t exist.'”

Zaidi says he has encountered patients who are so vaccine-hesitant, they’re willing to lie to avoid immunization. 

“One man bribed me,” he said. “He goes, ‘I’ll pay you $200 for your time, but you cannot look up my Netcare (vaccination history).'”

Zaidi turned down the request and says others have asked if he’ll forge certificates for them. 

PAID ACTOR ACCUSATIONS

A 46-year-old Calgary man who spoke to CTV News earlier this week about his battle with COVID-19 says he’s been called a “paid actor” for his role in the story. 

Bernie Cook, who was admitted to the ICU and attached to a ventilator, spoke about his experience being “anti-vax” on Monday. 

He says his hospital experience changed his mind on the shot — something he hopes others will consider when spreading false information. 

On Friday, Cook said he’s been accused multiple times of being an actor who was working with the media to spread lies about the vaccine. 

In fact, he said one social media poster falsely claimed he’d be offered $100,000 for his role in the story. 

Of course, that isn’t true. Instead, it’s just one example of how far some will go in their efforts to deter the undecided from getting vaccinated. 

POLITICAL PURSUIT

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the vaccine rate could remain low if real facts continue to be obstructed by a vocal minority spreading false information. 

For many, that false information ranges from lies about vaccine side effects to outrageous claims of empty intensive care units, paid journalistic sources and fabricated death numbers. 

On Thursday, Kenney said he believes about half of unvaccinated Albertans are hardcore deniers who won’t get the shot under any circumstance.

The province will be launching an ad campaign to attempt to combat some of that misinformation. 

Kenney has also asked the federal government for more Johnson and Johnson vaccines. The premier said Thursday he has heard some hesitant Albertans may be open to immunization if their dose isn’t of the mRNA variety. 

CTV News has yet to independently verify that claim.

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