The memorial page Light for Riley has been targeted by a fake fact-checker that harasses grieving parents with conspiracy theories and anti-vaccine nonsense.
Imagine that you and your partner are fully vaccinated and have a child in a community with relatively low vaccination rates. Just weeks after birth, the child gets sick and dies from a vaccine-preventable disease because he was too young to be vaccinated. A crushing experience that could very well destroy your life. Imagine that you two decide to take action and start promoting vaccination to reduce the risk that other parents having the same horrifying outcome and protect newborn babies from dying. Imagine now that you are barraged by anti-vaccine hate. Imagine being told that your child never existed, that you are just crisis actors or that you killed your own baby in collusion with pharmaceutical companies and the hospital.
This is the real-life experience of Catherine and Greg Hughes. After their newborn child Riley died of whooping-cough because he was too young to be vaccinated, they started the Light for Riley initiative to advocate for immunization against vaccine-preventable diseases. For years, they have been bullied and harassed by anti-vaccine activists. Some have even created a fake “fact-checking” Facebook page that intentionally targets the memorial page of their dead son.
What are fake fact-checkers?
A fake fact-checker is generally some kind of organization, website or social media page that tries to mimic an established fact-checker in order to borrow their credibility. In the same way that pseudoscience is an imposter trying to look like science but not fulfilling the criteria of being scientific, fake fact-checkers are imposters trying to look like legitimate fact-checkers without actually being one.
So far, Debunking Denialism has documented two instances of fake fact-checkers. Both are from the Swedish context.
The first was a Facebook page called Mediekollen (roughly translates to “The Media Checker”) that tried to impersonate the legitimate Swedish fact-checking initiative Viralgranskaren (roughly translates to “The Viral Examinator”). They stole the images that Viralgranskaren used to label claims as true or false and put it on their own fake fact-checking content. Virtually all of that content pushed far right anti-immigration myths and labeled them as factually accurate when they were, in fact, deeply misleading and often outright false. When Viralgranskaren contacted Facebook about the issue and wrote their own debunking article, Mediekollen initially wrote a rebuttal, but they later unpublished or deleted their page. It is unknown who was behind the fake fact-checking page Mediekollen.
The second was called Faktiskt.EU and tried to impersonate the legitimate fact-checking collaboration Faktiskt.SE. This collaboration involved several established Swedish news agencies that gathered individual fact-checking articles they wrote ahead of the Swedish 2018 General election. This real fact-checker wrote multiple posts fact-checking prominent claims made by politicians of all ideologies in the Swedish parliament. They also occasionally took on viral claims that appeared on social media as well, but their main focus was protecting the Swedish election from fake news, conspiracy theories and other forms of misleading claims. Right now, the collaboration website Faktiskt.SE has been retired, but the individual collaborators still continue publishing fact-checking articles on their respective websites.
In a possible dystopian future, there may be organizations that build up their own alleged fact-checking brand, but refuses to follow the international criteria for being a legitimate fact-checker. Likely, this is just a matter of financial resources and time. It is the next logical development for people who want to spread misinformation across the world and make it more difficult for real fact-checkers to have an impact against nonsense.
Why are fake fact-checkers a problem?
The problems with fake fact-checkers are similar to the problems with fake news. First, it dilutes the concentration of factual information on the Internet so that misinformation gets more impact. Second, it undermines the trust in real news as it becomes more difficult to distinguish real and fake news. Finally, it is psychologically weaponized to exploit human biases and emotions. This could be one of the reasons why fake news on social media spreads faster than real news.
Fake fact-checkers also have additional dangers. Essentially, it is a form of meta-misinformation. It not only tries to undermine factual information with deceptive nonsense, but also undermines the efforts to combat that very same deceptive nonsense.
Right now, there are very few documented fake fact-checkers. They are also relatively unsophisticated in comparison with what they could become. They have also primarily tried to impersonate real fact-checkers instead of trying to build their own brand and directly compete with real fact-checkers.
What is the story behind the memorial page Light For Riley?
Catherine Hughes and her husband Greg lost their newborn child Riley to pertussis (whooping-cough) in 2015. Riley was just 32 days old and too young to be vaccinated. They also lived in an Australian community that had one of the worst vaccination rates in the country. Just two days after Riley had died, the Australian government introduced a program that would give pregnant women free booster vaccinations against pertussis. Catherine had received a booster vaccination three years before the birth and was assured by doctors that it would be sufficient to protect Riley. It was not.
Later, Catherine and Greg co-founded Light for Riley and the Immunisation Foundation of Australia to reduce the risk of this happening to other children and to spread reliable information about vaccines. They even posted a video of Riley with the characteristic whooping-cough sound so that parents and others can detect it faster.
Online, the family has received a lot of supportive methods, but also a lot of hate. The hate comes partly from people who mistakenly thought they were anti-vaccine activists (they where fully vaccinated), but also from anti-vaccine activists themselves. The latter has become more and more extreme over time. They have even been accused of being shills for the pharmaceutical industry, that they are just crisis actors and even that they murdered their own son Riley in a cover-up:
We’ve been told our child was a doll and that we are actors employed by “Big Pharma”. We’ve been told that our son never existed, or that Riley’s death was orchestrated by the health department in order to promote immunisation. We were even accused of murdering our child and blaming it on whooping-cough to get away with it.
Anti-vaccine activists have harassed the family since 2015. This is part of a larger anti-vaccine effort in Australia. For instance, they have put up anti-vaccine billboards that have drawn the ire of both Catherine Hughes and the Australian Medical Association.
In 2018, pertussis rates had fallen by 20% compared with when Riley died in 2015.
The anti-vaccine “fact-checker” that harasses the parents of a dead child
Some unknown anti-vaccine activists have gone to such lengths as to create a fake fact-checking page on Facebook to specifically target the Light for Riley Project page. It is deceptively entitled “Light For Riley Fact Checker” and like previous fake fact-checkers, they steal part of the content from the page they are attacking. In this case, they have taken the entire name of the real page (“Light For Riley”) and just added deceptive content after.
A brief look at their about page reveals their true intentions. They are not an independent fact-checker, but a page designed to push anti-vaccine misinformation and to harass Catherine and Greg Hughes:
For some reason they think they should be immune from criticism. They think it’s ok to publicly call for the limitation of people’s rights, and they have publicly confessed that they think it’s acceptable to punish other children randomly because an experience they suffered under completely unrelated circumstances.
No, the Hughes do not think they should be immune from criticism. Vaccine advocacy to ensure that all children are protected from deadly diseases (such as the one that killed Riley) is not a “limitation of people’s rights”. This is because there is no right that says that you are allowed to neglect your children. They do not want to “punish other children randomly”, but protect them from deadly diseases and harmful misinformation. The Hughes lost their son due to low vaccination rates. This is not completely unrelated to anti-vaccine activism.
LFR, you are intentionally creating the division and polarisation that several public health experts are expressing concerned about.
Vaccine advocacy saves lives. It is anti-vaccine activism that creates division and polarization. Public health experts are not on the side of anti-vaccine activists.
People repeatedly message our page to claim that we are intensive and are bullying grieving parents, but they seem to have difficulty from identifying the difference between bullying and what is actually legitimate criticism of their public behaviour and incorrect information.
Claiming that two parents who want to protect children really want to “punish other children randomly” and constant anti-vaccine harassment of them shows that this fake fact-checker really does engage in “bullying grieving parents”.
They even admit to intentionally removing all criticism from their page:
We intentionally do not give a voice to LFR’s followers, as they do not give a voice to anyone trying to correct their misinformation on their page. We believe in balance, and the only way to achieve balance is to counter their biased page with similar censorship here. It is not our preference, but likewise it is not our preference that this page needs to exist at all, nor that we need to fight our medical choices.
This is a classic appeal to the denialist debating tactic called false balance. It is when people demand that equal time should be given to science and to nonsense. It is also strange because the fake fact-checking page is punishing followers of a page for the alleged misdeeds of the page. So even if their false balance appeal was legitimate (it is not), their own actions do not make sense. However, it is interesting that they admit to intentionally removing content from critics. That contradicts the appeal to freedom that the did previously.
They make one final attempt to argue that they are not bullying or harassing the Hughes by citing Facebook’s community standards that claims that the protection against bullying do not apply to public figures.
Public health experts cannot rely on herd immunity to protect people from pertussis
They also put in a quote from Catherine about how a higher vaccination rate could have meant that Riley would not have gotten sick and died. However, this is taken out of context. The full Q&A reads (bold not in original):
Q: Doesn’t herd immunity protect most people?
A: When enough of a population is immune to an infectious disease, through vaccination or prior illness, its spread from person to person is unlikely. Public health experts call this ‘herd immunity’ (or community immunity). Even people not vaccinated (such as newborns and those with chronic illnesses) typically have protection because the disease has little opportunity to spread within their community. Public health experts cannot rely on herd immunity to protect people from pertussis since:
– Pertussis spreads so easily
– Vaccine protection decreases over time
– Acellular pertussis vaccines may not prevent colonization (carrying the bacteria in your body without getting sick) or spread of the bacteria
Vaccines are the most effective tool doctors have to provide protection against pertussis. It’s important that everyone get their recommended pertussis vaccines to protect themselves.
In other words, the fake fact-checker claims “there is no herd immunity for pertussis”, whereas the CDC FAQ they link to states that one cannot naively rely on a large proportion of people being vaccinated because pertussis spreads easily (and so require very high rates of vaccination) and that the vaccine is not perfect. The CDC is not claiming that herd immunity is not real, merely that one needs a very high vaccination coverage and make sure you are up to date on booster vaccinations.
It is clear that the Facebook page “Light For Riley Fact Checker” is not a real fact-checker. They have harassed and bullied grieving parents of a dead child since late 2017 while also pushing the same tired and old anti-vaccine claims that have been debunked thousands of times.