By Jacob Silver
On Saturday, July 12th, Denmark and Finland were playing a competitive match in the first round of the UEFA European Championship soccer tournament. Suddenly, around halfway through the game, superstar Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed as a result of what we now know to be cardiac arrest. Regardless of the presence of better information, there will always be baseless speculation about the medical status of athletes. In Eriksen’s case, however, it took a dangerous turn, as articles quickly began circulating suggesting that Eriksen’s episode was the result of a recent COVID-19 vaccination.
In reality, Eriksen’s cardiac arrest was not the result of a COVID-19 vaccine; in fact, Eriksen had not received any such vaccine at all by the time of the game.
In the United States, a country fortunate enough to possess enough COVID-19 vaccines to meet demand, anti-vaccine sentiments are known to be the chief hurdle in achieving herd-immunity levels of COVID-19 immunity — an especially unfortunate reality in the wake of the emergence of the so-called delta variant, which is more deadly and spreads more easily than previous mutations. But make no mistake: anti-vaccine views are much more than an American problem. A research team working with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control found that vaccine hesitancy may actually be more prevalent in Europe than in the U.S. The worldwide rush to blame Eriksen’s medical issues on a vaccine demonstrates the global prevalence of anti-vaccine propaganda.
The news of Eriksen’s collapse — watched by millions around the world — spread far and wide online. Soccer players are among the biggest social stars on the planet and drove engagements on mentions of Eriksen with well-wishes and praise for their fellow star athlete. But around 6pm GMT, mere minutes after Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, baseless speculation and disinformation emerged amid these well-wishes. Commentary in this vein ranged from asking whether he had received the vaccine to outright claims that vaccination was proven to be the cause of the collapse. Anti-vaccine activists cited an interview in which a doctor for Inter Milan, an Italian team Eriksen plays for, suggested that the team’s players would be vaccinated prior to the start of “the tournament,” though it is not clear to which tournament he was referring.
It was not long before these rumors were — or at least should have been — quelled by Inter Milan’s director’s confirmation that Eriksen neither had COVID-19 nor had received a vaccination against the virus. Still, conversation on the topic persisted, earning tens of thousands of engagements across Facebook and other platforms over the next several days.
It is worth noting that posts related to the vaccine were not necessarily spreading disinformation — many were responding to and often contradicting it. It is also possible that Facebook removed some high profile instances of disinformation — many of the instances that remain up were labeled as false information following a number of fact checks. Still, the prevalence of vaccine-related discussion around Eriksen in a particular market, regardless of its aim, signals that disinformation made some kind of splash in that market. And the splash zones are telling: a number of countries stand out amid the vaccine conversation, over-indexing relative to their share of post engagements about Eriksen’s medical issue more broadly.
Posts from Italy accounted for two-fifths of interactions on vaccine-related Eriksen posts, owing largely to a regional politician who mused that vaccinated people are “dropping like flies”. A popular Italian author promoted a similar view in a post with hundreds of reactions and shares that remains up and unlabeled.
Unsurprisingly, the conversation gained traction in Eriksen’s native Denmark as well, aided by personalities like a popular Danish fashion designer.
Brazil was not among the top countries in terms of engagements about Eriksen’s cardiac arrest. However, the country was responsible for thousands of interactions on posts related to his supposed vaccination, largely due to a firestorm generated by an extremely popular pro-Bolsonaro media figure promoting the narrative. His early tweet spreading the rumor remains up with over 14k likes and retweets.
The Euro League is not the only international sports competition happening this summer — the Summer Olympics were officially kicked off in Tokyo on July 23rd, with hundreds of millions of people expected to tune in at various points throughout the 2 weeks of the games. Unfortunately, medical issues are not uncommon at the Olympics and could occur for any number of reasons, with a recent surge of COVID-19 cases in Tokyo of particular concern. Anti-vaccine disinformation spreaders will be on the lookout for any bad health outcome they can attribute to vaccination with no concern for veracity. And the case of Christian Eriksen shows that star athletes, given their status as paragons of health and fitness, may be particularly appealing subjects for disinformation campaigns.
No part of the world will be truly free of COVID’s grasp until all the world is. While vaccine supply and distribution remain the biggest barriers to immunity, vaccine hesitancy bolstered by false and misleading claims severely hampers uptake even where doses are plentiful. Effectively combating those claims requires working across international lines to understand where disinformation is gaining traction, why it’s proving compelling on a localized basis, and moving swiftly to prevent its further spread.
Data from CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook.