Hours before the Powerhouse Science Center was scheduled to host a presentation about COVID-19 on Tuesday on Facebook, the nonprofit realized its social media account had been suspended.
Executive Director Jeff Susor said Facebook suspended the page based on reports that the Powerhouse was in violation of Facebook’s policies that prevent spreading misinformation about COVID-19.
The Powerhouse was scheduled to present the last of a three-part series about the virus, vaccines and misinformation surrounding the pandemic. The third session, about the current state of COVID-19, was going to feature Liane Jollon, executive director of San Juan Basin Public Health, which serves La Plata and Archuleta counties.
Susor said a small but vocal minority of people have been hounding the Powerhouse over its COVID-19 presentations. He said he has received emails – all from the same group of half a dozen people – saying that Susor and Powerhouse staff members “don’t know what science is.”
“‘You don’t understand that the COVID vaccine is killing tens of thousands of kids,’” Susor said, summarizing the messages he’s been receiving.
“And that’s just utterly, factually untrue,” he said.
Susor suspects the same people behind the angry emails are responsible for spamming the report button on the Powerhouse’s Facebook page.
Susor provided The Durango Herald with the contents of various emails he had received, although he withheld the senders’ names.
Susor said the emails misinterpret or misrepresent data reported through VAERS, the national vaccine safety monitoring system that accepts reports of adverse events after vaccination. The emails also allege pharmaceutical companies are withholding data about vaccine ingredients and side effects. And several emails suggest clinicians have conflicting financial interests as related to vaccines.
“There’s tons of great resources online that debunk a lot of this misinformation, but it’s at a national level and disconnected from our local community,” Susor said. “So we felt like it was our role to help point folks toward trusted sources.”
He said the Powerhouse’s role during the pandemic has been to address misinformation by giving people trusted information from local sources and answering questions in good faith.
Susor is trying to reschedule the presentation featuring Jollon.
In an interview Wednesday with the Herald, Jollon said the overwhelming majority of people who have died from COVID-19 in the last two months were unvaccinated despite having access to vaccines.
“When something like this (false reports about the Powerhouse) happens, it really has a tremendous impact on the community,” she said. “It’s not fair to individuals who are genuinely interested in learning more about this pandemic, and genuinely interested in evaluating when they want to be vaccinated, to have this talk shut down. Because it leads to death if people aren’t vaccinated.”
Misinformation and disinformation about the efficacy of vaccines is a trend health professionals noticed even before the pandemic arrived, Jollon said. Outbreaks of childhood diseases such as measles were occurring in the United States and abroad. But the rate of misinformation has ramped up since COVID-19 entered the scene, scaring some people away from vaccines and prolonging the pandemic, she said.
A small group of people can easily spread misinformation online, and just small adjustments to the number of vaccinated people can give viruses chances to cause outbreaks, the health director added.
Jollon said she was looking forward to Tuesday night’s discussion.
“There are real consequences with this,” she said.
Eight of 10 La Plata County residents have received at least one shot and seven out of 10 residents are fully vaccinated, she said.
“We know from the statistics that the overwhelming number of individuals want to protect themselves, protect their family and protect the community,” she said. “The incident that happened last night (Tuesday) is in the continuum of a campaign of fear and intimidation of public health officials that we have experienced as an agency for quite some time.”
She compared the effort to shut down the Powerhouse’s Facebook page to previous incidents in which people showed up in front of her house to protest public health orders. Backlash against public health agencies and other organizations is “very intense” and “very unfair,” she said.
As of Wednesday morning, Susor was still working with Facebook to restore the Powerhouse’s online profile. He believes the social media platform’s misinformation removal is automated, and expects it will take a few days for an actual person to review the Powerhouse’s content.