The Perfect Enemy | How A ‘Thanks Pfizer’ Covid Misinformation Meme Went Viral - Forbes
February 8, 2023
Read Time:4 Minute

Topline

False claims that Covid-19 vaccines cause spasms have gone viral on social media, with many users — even language education company Duolingo — making an even more viral joke out of the misinformation.

Key Facts

Anti-vaxxers are spreading videos on social media of people appearing to seize or spasm, falsely claiming these to be Covid-19 vaccine side effects — but in many cases the videos are years old, unrelated to the Covid-19 vaccine and have been debunked by fact-checkers.

Spasms and seizures are not listed as either common side effects or adverse side effects of the Covid-19 vaccine, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the CDC emphasizes the vaccines are safe and effective.

One video shared by James Cintolo, who claims in his Twitter bio to be a medical expert, shows a woman convulsing — he called the video “urgent” despite a Twitter fact-checking label noting the video is two years old — and it racked up 25 million views on the platform, inspired widespread mockery and a note from Twitter’s fact-checking team noting it “has been debunked by multiple news outlets and local and Federal health officials, showing no association … with the COVID vaccine,” according to multiple news outlets including a Wired investigation.

Twitter users quickly turned these fake vaccine side effects into a meme: Many tweets, some simply captioned “Thanks Pfizer”—the caption from a widely derided Twitter video by Angelia Desselle labeled as misinformation that has been viewed more than 23 million times)—show a video like Steve Carrell’s character from The Office doing a bizarre dance, or Dua Lipa simply swaying side to side, garnering millions of views and hundreds of thousands of likes this week.

Brands made their own jokes, too: Duolingo shared a video of its mascot dancing, captioning it “Thanks Pfizer” (the company also shared a tweet with a link to the CDC website, urging people to stay informed about the vaccine and assuring people “twerking is not a side effect”).

Key Background

Videos of people appearing to convulse after receiving a dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, which are used to intentionally spread misinformation, date back at least two years but have recently resurfaced on social media. Angelia Desselle’s January 2021 video was reshared last week on Twitter by user Cintolo, who regularly posts false and misleading information about Covid-19 and the vaccine. Desselle’s case was debunked by media outlets; A CDC spokesperson told Wired in January 2021 it had “no adverse event data regarding a case of this nature out of Louisiana,” where Desselle is from. A Louisiana Department of Health spokesperson told Wired in January 2021 only one adverse vaccine reaction had led to hospitalization at that time — the person, who experienced gastrointestinal distress and lightheadedness, was released and recovered. Cintolo frequently posts such bogus videos, falsely claiming that the vaccine is dangerous, and several of his tweets have been debunked by media outlets and are branded with fact-checks on Twitter. His false tweets come as anti-vaccine propaganda surges, particularly the “died suddenly” conspiracy theory, which was peddled in a documentary of the same name and prompted Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene to demand an investigation into the vaccines.

“thanks Pfizer” Memes

Duolingo has garnered nearly 300,000 likes and more than 8 million views on their “Thanks Pfizer” meme tweet, which the language learning company posted on Monday. Other tweets taking part in the viral joke include a video of Taylor Swift dancing in her video for “Delicate” and a video of comedian Nathan Fielder dancing to Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie” — both captioned “Thanks Pfizer.” “My friend Brenda got her vaccine and this started happening in the middle of movie night thanks Pfizer,” one user captioned a satirical tweet, paired with a video of Regina Hall’s character having a seizure in Scary Movie 3. Subjects of the meme aren’t always human — some Twitter users joked the vaccine was to blame for why apps on their iPhone, a shopping cart or a Halloween decoration were shaking or twitching.

What Are The Actual Vaccine Side Effects?

The most common vaccine side effects — which tend to be mild and temporary — in adults include pain, redness and swelling in the arm, as well as tiredness, headache, muscle pain, chills, fever and nausea, according to the CDC. Booster shot side effects may include fever, headache, fatigue, and pain at the injection site. Adverse effects of the vaccine are rare, and the CDC emphasizes the vaccines are safe and effective. Five cases per one million vaccine doses have been linked to anaphylaxis and four cases per one million doses of the Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine have been linked to thrombosis with thrombocytopenia syndrome. Seizures or spams are not listed among the adverse effects of any Covid-19 vaccine on the CDC website.

Further Reading

Claims of Covid Vaccine Injuries and Deaths Revive Protest Movement (Rolling Stone)

They claimed the Covid-19 vaccine made them ill. Then they went viral (Wired)

Full coverage and live updates on the Coronavirus