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'My body, my choice': How some Irish wellness Instagram accounts became a hotbed of Covid-19 misinformation

The platform is being used to spread false information about Covid-19 in novel ways,.

Aisling O'Loughlin in a recent video on Instagram
Aisling O'Loughlin in a recent video on Instagram
Image: Instagram

ON 1 APRIL, Aisling O’Loughlin posted on Instagram for the first time in over seven months.

Although the former TV3 presenter’s feed used to regularly showcase her life as a showbiz reporter, images of her smiling alongside celebrities or glamorously dressed on red carpets slowly disappeared after she was replaced as the co-host of Xposé in 2017.

Over time, a new cast of characters began to feature in her photos: her mother tanning herself on a beach in Clare; a street in France, where O’Loughlin now lives; a tabby cat sprawled on a bed in hazy sunshine.

Even these updates began to dry up after she took to Instagram Stories instead, posting content that was more fleeting to a section of the app that allows posts to disappear forever once they’ve been live for 24 hours.

Then, at the start of last month, O’Loughlin returned to posting on her permanent feed.

In a one-minute video, she was almost apologetic when she acknowledged how long it had been since she shared anything that was visible for more than a day.

“Hello hello… haven’t put a post up in yonks,” she began.

“Over on Stories at the minute, we’re talking some of the big issues of the day, of our time essentially.

“I came out yesterday and I spoke out against a two-tier society. I don’t know one two-tier society that has ever ended well. Do you? If you do, get in touch.”

Those only used to seeing posts on her feed may have believed that O’Loughlin’s analysis of societal fairness was unexpected. Her remarks may even have come across as innocuous, if a little strange. Then she explained herself. 

“We’re talking about the vaccine. Am I allowed to say that out loud? Are we allowed to say that on this platform? We’re talking about the vaccine, we’re talking about Covid, we’re talking about what’s going on and I’m allowing people to have a voice.”

O’Loughlin explained that she is in favour of “equality” about vaccines, but those who had been monitoring her Instagram stories in the weeks before the video could see the post for what it was: a thinly coded anti-vaccine message.

In the weeks beforehand, she repeatedly questioned the benefits of Covid-19 vaccines in her stories alongside comments of support for her views.

Some had laughed off O’Loughlin’s swerve from showbiz, but her message is resonating with a community that flew under the radar until she returned to posting on her feed.

That community’s use of Instagram has exposed a critical flaw in efforts to curtail the spread of misinformation on social media, and is helping spread Covid-19 misinformation to young female audiences.

A concerned mother

Since that 1 April video, O’Loughlin has shared over 30 similar posts that have escalated her war against Covid-19 vaccines and other measures aimed at fighting the pandemic.

After posting just three times last year, her feed has recently become littered with false claims, including suggestions that Covid-19 vaccines are “experimental”, that RTÉ stars have been paid off by pharma companies and that face masks contain “parasitic worms”.

She has also praised other figures who have made misleading and false claims about the pandemic over the past year, including UCD professor Dolores Cahill and former Pfizer researcher Mike Yeadon.

screenshot-2021-03-18-at-17-55-44 Professor Dolores Cahill is among those whose false claims Aisling O'Loughlin has shared on Instagram Source: PA

But unlike many conspiracy theorists who have come to the fore in Ireland, O’Loughlin’s method of communication is somewhat novel here.

Rather than posting angry diatribes against global elites, she speaks in a calm, personal tone, advocating choice and understanding for those who are vaccine hesitant.

The opinions of those in favour of vaccines are sometimes sought, which presents an illusion of balance.

She uses phrases like “my body, my choice” – a slogan previously associated with the abortion referendum in 2018.

Her video messages also reference her status as a parent, framing her views as those of a concerned mother rather than a conspiracy theorist. And false and misleading claims are posed as questions, a subtle move that allows misinformation to be shared without being an outright lie.

Dr Eileen Culloty, a disinformation researcher at the DCU’s Institute for Media, Democracy and Society, explains that such tactics were developed by anti-vaccine campaigners after social media companies blocked terms linked to the movement.

“Just before the pandemic, there was already huge concern and push-back against platforms including Instagram for the amount of anti-vaccine misinformation on them,” she tells The Journal.

“The platforms were doing all the same things that they have done to reduce misinformation around Covid: they blocked certain hashtags and phrases and promoted health sources.

“But all that really happened was that the anti-vaccine activists adopted new tactics to get their message out. They used use hashtags like #learntherisks and #justaskingquestions, and very emotional content to draw people in.”

Alternative health and wellness groups

Culloty also highlights an overlap between the anti-vaccination movement and alternative health and wellness groups, particularly as both have used the issue of childhood immunisation to make claims about responsible parenting.

Before the pandemic, these groups relied on emotional personal testimonies to falsely claim that their children had gotten ill from vaccines and to promote ‘natural’ medicines to keep young people protected instead.

And as new vaccines have developed over the last twelve months, they have linked up with Covid-19 conspiracy groups to create a unique cohort of people – especially younger adults and mothers – who promote pandemic-related misinformation.

Although O’Loughlin is not an outward advocate for any specific alternative remedies, many of those who follow her and agree with her views are.

The Journal monitored dozens of Instagram pages which shared O’Loughlin’s videos in recent weeks and analysed accounts which liked her posts and posted supportive messages on her feed.

Supporters of her message included people who described themselves as holistic nutrition coaches, wellness advocates, energy healers, acupuncturists, homeopaths and massage therapists.

Many shared O’Loughlin’s videos and other forms of Covid-19 misinformation to their feeds and Instagram stories, but others – including those offering services to the public – showed no sign they held anti-vaccination beliefs aside from engaging with her posts.

Misinformation analyst Aoife Gallagher of the Institute for Strategic Dialogue suggests that such accounts may have been drawn in by O’Loughlin because her tactics are similar to those used by influencers aligned to the alternative health industry.

“This is something that has really exploded in the past year,” she says.

“That cohort of wellness influencers have this message that says things like ‘seek your own truth’, ‘ask questions’, ‘come to your own conclusions’, ‘reject the mainstream narrative’, ‘reach in your own sense of enlightenment’ and so on.

“A lot of those kind communities would embrace conspiracy theories and be pretty sceptical of or have a lack of trust in Big Pharma and modern medicine.”

QAnon influence

Gallagher explains that this sense of distrust aligned with political opposition to Covid-19 measures, but suggests a big factor which turned many wellness advocates towards conspiracy theories was the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory last year.

The debunked theory claims that an anonymous, high-ranking government official known as Q frequently shared information about a “deep state”, tied to satanism and child sex trafficking, that worked against Donald Trump when he was president.

Gallagher says the movement diluted some of the more political aspects to the theory last summer, and instead began to play up its claims to champion child protection measures to create a moral panic which drew in a new type of follower.

“This was really where we started seeing the kind of wellness influencer type cohort on Instagram start to dive into these conspiracy theories,” she says.

There is no indication from her posts that O’Loughlin believes in the QAnon theory, but its proliferation may in part explain why so many alternative health and wellness advocates are attracted to her Covid-19 conspiracy videos.

The movement’s fingerprints are, however, visible on Instagram pages of other Irish influencers who market themselves using health and wellness terms.

One such account with almost 15,000 followers, features the terms “gluten free” and “organic” in her biography, alongside a link to her own range of baseball caps, bags and t-shirts which feature anti-lockdown slogans like ‘born to free’.

Psychological needs

Others may simply have been drawn to O’Loughlin’s message and other conspiracies because of the impact of the pandemic on people mentally.

Professor Karen Douglas of the University of Kent, who has studied the psychology conspiracy theories for more than a decade, says that conspiracy theories tend to proliferate in times of crisis.

She tells The Journal that the situation has been exacerbated over the past year as lockdowns continued and people felt even more worried and uncertain about the future.

“When people are trying to make sense of a lot of (sometimes confusing) information, or when they feel unsafe and insecure, conspiracy theories might seem to offer some answers,” she says.

“So, this means that at any given time, anyone might be susceptible to conspiracy theories.”

Shane Timmons, a research officer at the Behavioural Research Institute at the ESRI, told The Journal their research has found “that if you’re getting your main information about Covid mainly from TV or radio, you’re much more willing to say you’d definitely take the vaccine”.

“But if your main information is coming from social media, news sources or general posts, you are much more likely to be vaccine hesitant. Vaccine hesitant people are those who say they’re not sure, or they won’t take the vaccine.”

He says that related to this, the general research on conspiracy theories shows that when uncertainty is high, people have a higher need to fill the information gap, and wherever they go for information will fill that gap. If they go towards mainstream media or reputable sources, that is one thing, but if people turn to social media, this is a space that is not regulated.

There is also a whole range of cognitive biases that can come into play, says Timmons.

“One bias that comes up regularly is confirmation bias – if we see information that confirms our beliefs we already have, we are much more likely to accept that and not look for any contradictory evidence.

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“If you have concerns about how quickly the vaccine was made and worry that it’s not safe, and you’re getting most of your information from social media where you might read anecdotes from someone who had side effects, you will take on that information and maybe become more hesitant.”

Regarding the wellness space, the ‘natural is better’ bias comes into play, says Timmons. People with this bias automatically assume if something is natural, it is better for them and vice versa – if it’s not natural, it’s not good.

When people follow these biases, they might not slow down and analyse the information fully.

Another important component is people’s perceptions of control over their own lives, he says.

“If they feel a need to be in control they are more likely to want to reject the consensus … they might reject the official narrative and embrace the alternative account, which can give them a sense of power and control.”

He says that it’s important to note there are different populations within the wellness space who are drawn to these accounts. “Some will have genuine concerns they want addressed,” he says.

Some social media sites have done things to try and intervene, like Twitter’s prompt before people share links, asking them if they have read the article they’re about to share. This can slow people down and get them to think about what they’re sharing, he says.

“The vast majority of people, that will stop them from sharing the false information,” says Timmons.

“There will be some bad actors who want to share that information even though they know it’s false. The vast majority of people out there are not trying to share misinformation – they see something which shares their world view.”

He says that people also don’t tend to find causal explanations satisfying when there is a simple explanation for a major event – like Covid-19. “They will look for a cause that is proportional to the outcome.”

Timmons says that fear and uncertainty are a big driver to people seeking out information, and even being drawn to conspiracy theories. Research has shown that people who believe conspiracy theories can hold two contradictory beliefs about the same thing, such as believing that the virus was both engineered and that it does not exist.

“If you already hold pre-existing anti-establishment views you are more likely to think this alternative narrative makes sense,” he says. 

Douglas also says that those attracted to conspiracy theories tend to have existential needs (which make people need to feel safe and in control) and social needs (related to the need to maintain a positive view of themselves) which are not being met.

This is one danger of messages in this wellness arena and with someone like O’Loughlin who tends to deliver her videos in a friendly, reassuring manner and her posts often intersperse comments from those who agree with her between videos on her ‘Stories’. 

New audiences

Another issue is O’Loughlin’s use of the Stories feature itself.

Unlike the videos which have recently appeared on her feed, O’Loughlin’s posts on the stories section of her profile disappear after 24 hours.

The fleeting nature of these posts mean they can easily evade fact-checkers for Facebook – which owns Instagram – because they vanish before they can be debunked and flagged as misinformation.

Worryingly, the use of the platform by O’Loughlin and wellness accounts is bringing Covid-19 misinformation to a younger audience than other forms of social media.

“It’s a generalisation but it’s kind of accurate as well, that Facebook would be for older people in younger people would be using Instagram,” Gallagher says.

A spokesperson for Facebook recently told The Journal that a number of O’Loughlin’s Instagram posts had been removed for violating “harmful misinformation policies”.

The company also said her account had been de-prioritised in searches on the platform, meaning it was less likely to appear in the search bar for those looking for it.

“Our fact-checking partners prioritise the content that’s most likely to cause harm, and the most likely to lead to harm, and want to optimise for the content that’s most likely to have heightened reach,” a statement said.

“With that in mind, our fact-checkers optimise for more permanent posts when looking for areas where they can action.”

The spokesperson also said that fact-checks were matched to posts in Stories “when it makes sense to do so”, but did not specify whether this had ever happened to O’Loughlin’s account.

For now, O’Loughlin’s account remains active and despite being de-prioritised by Facebook, is easily accessible. She did not return requests for an interview or comment on her use of Instagram. In a recent post, she said she did not align herself with any political movement or tactics but aligns herself to “love” and “the question of truth and justice”. 

The regular stream of videos continues, both in her stories and on her feed, and there is no indication that another hiatus is imminent.

- Contains reporting by Aoife Barry.

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