COVID Vaccine Misinformation - DNA Modification

May 20, 2021

By Sam Clark, Mishaela Robison & Mark Ledwich

Beliefs about the efficacy and safety of vaccines are a major factor in vaccination rates, and each community's ability to control the virus and return to normal. Exposure to vaccine misinformation is likely to lead to a decrease in intent to get vaccinated, even among individuals who had previously stated they would definitely take the vaccine (Looba et al. 2021.)

Our last report delved into vaccine hesitancy on YouTube. While conducting this research, one of the most prominent narratives we identified was the notion that the COVID vaccine alters human DNA. This narrative begins with the truth that the vaccine is an mRNA vaccine, though it falsely claims that this new approach can permanently alter DNA. In this report, we share results from our research on the prevalence of this narrative on YouTube.

As the second most popular website in the United States, YouTube has a unique role as the site in which over a quarter of Americans get their news. Although YouTube has an official policy prohibiting COVID misinformation, including surrounding the vaccine, our current research indicates that videos still persist contributing to the DNA-alteration narrative. At this time, YouTube has not released specifics about their moderation enforcement, leaving the policing of this content cryptic at best. 


Highlights

  • Using Pendulum’s proprietary method, we identified 3,360 videos, accounting for 37M views, that are likely* to support the narrative that COVID vaccines modify your DNA.
  • 1,600 of these videos, accounting for 16M views, are still available on the platform.
  • We manually label the top 50 viewed videos supporting this narrative, which account for nearly 8M views. A tiled list is available to inspect these videos and their creators in greater detail.
  • An interactive chart containing information for all videos predicted to be supporting this narrative is also available at the bottom of the report.

* further information about accuracy along with accuracy adjusted estimates are available in the “Methodology” section


Methodology

For this report we focus on identifying YouTube videos that “support” the claim that COVID vaccines modify recipients DNA.

We use the same set of channels as was used for our prior report on vaccine hesitancy. From these channels, we have caption data for 14M videos, and these captions are split into 205M “snippets” (sections of captions that are ~100 tokens long). We filtered down this dataset to all videos containing one or more COVID keywords and all snippets from these videos containing a form of the word “vaccine” and “dna”. We call these words used for filtering “anchor” terms. This process results in a set of 9,200 videos and 15,689 snippets.

A random sample of 100 of the 15,689 snippets containing anchor terms were then manually reviewed. 37 of the 100 were found to support the narrative of DNA modification (base rate of 0.37). We then applied our proprietary method (a combination zero-shot learning and contextual information about channels) to these 100 snippets and found it had a precision of 0.74 and recall of 0.83 on this set. This means that 74% of snippets predicted to support the narrative actually support the narrative and 83% of snippets supporting the narrative were identified by the method. We find this to be impressive given the low base rate and fact that the method required minimal labeled data.

Applying our method to all 15,689 snippets containing anchor terms yielded 5,254 snippets that are predicted to support the narrative (from 3,360 videos).


Findings

To better understand the context in which the DNA-alteration narrative is being spread, we manually reviewed the top viewed videos identified by our method that are still available on YouTube. Information on the top 50 of these videos can be found here:

What arguments are being made?

We found that support for this narrative came through several, often overlapping, sub-narratives:

  • GMO: The vaccine will reprogram or permanently alter DNA, making a vaccine recipient a genetically modified organism (GMO).
    “So now you're going to be like a GMO creature if you take these vaccines”
  • Religious: The vaccine alters DNA which was created by God. (Some variants claim that receiving the vaccine can sever one’s connection to God.)
    “They're gonna give you a vaccine for a cold that's gonna change your God-given DNA”
  • Nanotechnology: The vaccine contains a third strand of DNA or some additional form of micro technology.
    “These vaccines will have nanotechnology inside that merges literally with your DNA, altering your dna. You go from human to trans human which basically means you're now merged with machine”
     
  • Abortion: The vaccine contains cells from aborted fetuses.
    “We're taking these little murdered babies parts and then we're using them for… vaccines and the vaccines you inject it, as you said, so it's morphing the DNA”
  • Bill Gates: The vaccine is connected to Bill Gates or the Gates foundation.
    “All of these companies are backed by the Gates Foundation or have been associated with the Gates Foundation”

Of these sub-narratives, religion was particularly prevalent, with 8 of the top 50 videos containing a reference to religion. We also cross referenced these manually reviewed accounts with tags from Transparency Tube, which categorizes channels based on their partisan leaning and affiliation with religious or conspiracy groups (note a channel can have more than one tag). Of these 50 videos, 27 were tagged with “Conspiracy” and 15 were “Religious Conservative”. In terms of political divide, 29 were Partisan Right, 2 were Libertarian, and 0 were Partisan Left. An additional 8 videos were from channels not covered by Transparency Tube.

Removed Videos

Our dataset contains 1,760 removed videos and 1,600 that still remain. Greater data on these videos can be accessed through our interactive graphic below.

While YouTube has removed several instances of vaccine misinformation, the removal process can come too late for videos that go viral. In fact, the 1,760 videos supporting the DNA-alteration narrative they’ve removed generated 21M views before their removal.

The channel Daystar, for instance, posted a video on March 10, 2020 which was removed eight days later for violating YouTube’s community guidelines. Over that short period of time, the video received over 2.4 million views. The video contained rhetoric supporting the narrative that the COVID vaccine permanently alters one’s DNA. 


Interactive Chart

We provide an interactive chart below to explore videos supporting the DNA-alteration narrative uploaded between Jan 1, 2020 and May 1, 2021. This chart can be filtered by different date ranges, channel classifications, and video availability status.

NOTE - These snippets have not been manually reviewed. Our model has a precision of 0.74, meaning roughly 1 in 4 examples will be incorrect.