A lasting legacy of Covid-19: Far-right platforms spreading health myths

Jessica Watt Dougherty (left) has thrown herself into activism after the death of her father, Randy Watt, from Covid-19 this year. PHOTOS: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON – Not long after Mr Randy Watt died of Covid-19, his daughter Danielle sat down at her computer, searching for clues as to why the smart and thoughtful man she knew refused to get vaccinated.

She pulled up Google, typed in a screen name he used in the past and discovered a secret that stunned her. Her father, she learned, had a hidden, virtual life on Gab, a far-right social media platform that traffics in Covid-19 misinformation.

And there was another surprise: As he fought the coronavirus, he told his followers that he was taking ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections that experts say has no benefit – and in fact can be dangerous – for patients with Covid-19.

“On two occasions, I coughed so hard that larynx went into spasm and closed my airway,” he wrote in a post on Gab a few days before Christmas 2021. “Frightening, yes, but relaxing instead of panicking allowed the airway to open in 15 to 20 seconds. Took second dose of ivermectin, along with ibuprofen for fever and my usual vitamin regimen. Rest, fluids, and prayer.”

Mr Watt, a passionate songwriter and musician who loved the outdoors and had retired from an energy company in Ohio, died on Jan 7. He was 64. His wife and two daughters are still struggling to understand what led him to a site like Gab, which his widow, Ms Victoria Stefan Watt, blames for what she called his “senseless death”.

Around the United States, countless Americans are suffering a very particular type of Covid-19 grief – a mixture of anger, sorrow and shame that comes with losing a loved one who has consumed social media falsehoods.

On Tuesday, in what was likely his last appearance in the White House briefing room before he retires from government service at the end of the year, Dr Anthony Fauci, President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, pleaded with Americans to speak out against scientific misinformation.

“The people who have correct information, who take science seriously, who don’t have strange, way-out theories about things but who base what they say on evidence and data, need to speak up more,” Dr Fauci said, “because the other side that just keeps putting out misinformation and disinformation seems to be tireless in that effort.”

Fighting misinformation is political

Experts say the spread of health misinformation – particularly on fringe social media platforms like Gab – is likely to be a lasting legacy of the coronavirus pandemic. And there are no easy solutions.

“There has been such an incredible focus on developing vaccines quickly,” said Dr Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security, adding: “But from my perspective, there’s a missing piece there – a missing social behavioural piece. You can get a vaccine out to people in 100 days, but they think it’s poison? You’ve still got a big problem.”

In preparation for future pandemics, the White House recently released a new national biodefence strategy that calls for the government to “enhance messaging partnerships” before another biological threat emerges. The goal, said Dr Raj Panjabi, Mr Biden’s top adviser on global health security, is to work with “reputable companies who care about getting the message right”.

But fighting misinformation has become political in itself – and has landed the Biden administration in court, opposite the attorneys-general in Louisiana and Missouri, both Republicans, who have accused it of suppressing free speech on matters like Covid-19 and elections by working with social media giants, including Facebook and Twitter.

Dr Fauci was deposed in that case on Wednesday. On Monday, a federal appeals court, siding with the Justice Department, put on hold a lower court’s order requiring Dr Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, and two other administration officials to sit for their own depositions.

Danielle Watt’s box of mementos of her father, Randy Watt, including a picture of them on her wedding day and the eulogy she read at his funeral. PHOTO: NYTIMES

It will not be so easy for the government to team up with smaller fringe sites like Gab, a hub for white supremacists and online conspiracy theories whose founder, Mr Andrew Torba, argues that “unapologetic Christian nationalism is what will save the United States of America”.

The site, which gained millions of new users after the Jan 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol, is rife with posts promoting unproven Covid-19 remedies, including ivermectin. It also has displayed ads offering ivermectin for sale.

In an e-mail to The New York Times, Mr Torba said Gab was “not in a position, as a neutral platform provider, to ‘fact-check’ our users or assess the truth or falsity of any information posted to the site”. He also criticised the Times and ended his message with an instruction: “Please repent and accept Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to quantify the precise toll that Covid-19 misinformation has taken on American society, but scholars are trying. In a report published last year, Dr Sell and her colleagues estimated that 5 to 30 per cent of unvaccinated Americans were influenced by Covid-19 falsehoods.

At George Washington University, Dr Sarah Wagner, a social anthropologist who researches death and mourning, has a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study the effects of Covid-19 misinformation.

Down the rabbit hole

Mr Watt was not a Covid-19 denier, his family says. His elder daughter, Ms Jessica Watt Dougherty, describes him as “a spiritual person” – a private man who loved Neil Young’s music; played guitar, banjo and harmonica; and wore his grey hair long like a “leftover hippie”. He passed his musical gifts to his grandchildren, teaching them to play guitar.

Early in the pandemic, Mr Watt was “hypervigilant with protocol”, according to his wife. He wore masks and ordered groceries online to avoid crowded stores. But at some point, like many Americans unsure of whom or what to believe, Mr Watt began questioning public health authorities. He felt that they were fearmongering, and that things were not as bad as they said.

Sometime in December 2020, just as coronavirus vaccines started to become available, he joined Gab – without his family’s knowledge. His daughters say they do not know what drew him there. His wife thinks he was depressed, stuck at home and feeling isolated in his retirement, and “went down the rabbit hole” into a world that did not reflect who he was.

Mr Watt soon expressed his disappointment with the site, noting in March 2021 that he had paid US$500 (S$688) for a lifetime membership without receiving much in return. He called Gab “a cesspool”, adding that he was “forced to doubt nearly 9/10 of what I read”.

Still, Mr Watt stuck around, eventually posting or reposting more than 3,200 messages. He wrote disparagingly of Mr Biden and admiringly of former president Donald Trump. He also shared posts promoting ivermectin, which the Food and Drug Administration had been warning against as a Covid-19 treatment.

In a post in April 2021, Mr Watt wondered if Covid-19 could be “overcome by inexpensive treatments such as simple Vitamin D, Vitamin C, ivermectin” and hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug promoted by Mr Trump.

“Who should I trust?” Mr Watt wrote. “Big government? Media? When was the last time they steered me in the right direction without lies and chicanery?”

Jessica Watt Dougherty looks through a family photo album of Randy Watt, who died of Covid-19 this year and had a hidden life on the far-right social media platform Gab. PHOTO: NYTIMES

‘No one knows what to do about it’

In a country that values freedom of speech, tamping down falsehoods on social media is tricky business for policymakers and health officials in Washington. Mr Torba has positioned Gab as a “First Amendment company”, as he put it, “which means we tolerate ‘offensive’ but legal speech”.

Mr Lawrence O. Gostin, a professor at Georgetown University and an expert in public health law, said the administration would be on “weak legal footing if it tries to regulate these companies”.

Misinformation and disinformation, he said, amount to “probably the central problem for public health and safety in America, and yet no one knows what to do about it”.

Mr Biden has tried using his bully pulpit. In 2021, after the surgeon general declared misinformation “an urgent threat to public health”, the president publicly accused platforms like Facebook of “killing people”.

Administration officials also met and communicated with officials from social media companies to coordinate and promote accurate messages about Covid-19.

Two Republican attorneys-general, Mr Eric Schmitt of Missouri and Mr Jeff Landry of Louisiana, argued that the officials colluded to suppress free speech and filed a suit in May. In July, a federal judge ordered the Biden administration to turn over communications between administration officials and social media companies.

Mr Schmitt and Landry said messages released in response were proof of a vast “censorship enterprise”.

When vaccines became widely available in the winter and spring of 2021, Ms Stefan Watt said, she and her husband were cautious; they wanted to see how other people fared. At one point, she thought both of them would get vaccinated together. But Mr Watt baulked and grew more adamant over time.

“I have received FLU vaccines for decades with no ill results,” he wrote on Gab in September 2021. But now, he said, “I am extremely wary of taking ANY vax in fear that I’ll receive a Covid jab”.

Danielle Watt holds a photo of her father, Randy Watt and his wife, Victoria Stefan Watt, on Oct 19, 2022. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Mr Watt’s wife and daughters said they did not argue with his decision.

“I was raised with, ‘What my dad says goes’,” Ms Watt Dougherty said, adding, “It was not something that I pushed.”

Now, she regrets that and feels guilty.

On Dec 26, after feeling ill for four weeks and refusing to get tested, Mr Watt finally took himself to the hospital. Doctors threw all manner of Covid-19 treatments at him: steroids, antiviral drug remdesivir and tocilizumab, a monoclonal antibody authorised by the FDA for Covid-19 on an emergency basis for patients who are also getting oxygen.

He told his wife that he regretted his decision not to get vaccinated and was finally ready to do it. It was too late.

On Jan 4, he recorded a goodbye video. “I’m Randy Watt,” he said from behind an oxygen mask, with monitors beeping in the background. “I’m 64. And chances are I’m dying.” NYTIMES

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