The misinformed but determined founder of a private school in Miami has been identified as a key link in perpetuating one of the most convincing lies about the COVID-19 vaccines.
In an analysis that demonstrates the power of one institution — be it school, church or civic group — to amplify conspiracy theories, NPR tracked down the source and communication path of the false claim that COVID vaccines affect female fertility and that it can be dangerous just to be near someone who has been vaccinated.
With research help from Graphika, NPR dug deep into the history and communication paths of this particular lie — one of many circulating to discourage vaccination — and found an inflection point at Centner Academy, a private school in Miami. The school’s head and founder, Leila Centner, is a veteran anti-vaxxer.
In this case, her unfounded personal beliefs became school policy, which in turn made news headlines, which in turn amplified globally the lie she had bought into.
In a reverse of what was happening most everywhere else, Centner decided to ban vaccinated people from the school, claiming they could mysteriously transmit illness to those around them.
Defying the emphatic advice of medical professionals around the globe, the school’s leader told parents: “We are not 100% sure the COVID injections are safe, and there are too many unknown variables for us to feel comfortable at this current time.”
She suggested that the vaccine could be responsible for unfounded reports of reproductive issues for women. In a statement to a local TV station, she added: “It appears that those who have received the injections may be transmitting something from their bodies to those with whom they come in contact.”
Such an outlandish statement obviously makes headlines in local news, which is exactly what happened in Miami. According to NPR’s analysis, that media coverage — well-intended though it was — sent a previously fringe idea into hyperdrive.
“To some people it’s crazy, and to others they question it because they want to know more, so for everyone there’s a reason why you click on it,” Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security told NPR. “By covering it, which is important for people to know what kind of stuff is going on out there, the other side of that is that the lie spreads faster, and more people see it and more people pick up on it.”
Melanie Smith, former director of analysis for Graphika, told NPR the Miami news made international headlines: “This is the point at which we start to see Spanish and Portuguese content, specifically.”
What was intended to be a cautionary tale about the spread of misinformation instead became a carrier for that very misinformation.
What was intended to be a cautionary tale about the spread of misinformation instead became a carrier for that very misinformation. The NPR report explained: “The lies piggybacked along with news of the school. Outlets in other languages began reporting that the vaccine can spread person to person, or cause fertility problems.”
This turning point in Miami falls in the middle of a six-step process NPR and Graphika identified in the spread of conspiracy theories.
The first step is to start with a kernel of truth. In this case, that kernel was an observation that after receiving the vaccine, some women were experiencing heavier menstrual cycles than normal. While doctors and scientists say there are likely explanations for this potential correlation, the gap in knowledge provided an opening for a conspiracy to take root.
“In the more successful misinformation cases that we see, there is always that gap of knowledge,” Smith told NPR.
The second step is to find an influencer to spread doubts and questions. In this case, the key amplifier was a Facebook group called “COVID-19 Vaccine Side Effects.” Anti-vaxxers infiltrated the group and began answering curious people’s questions with their dogma.
Anti-vaxxers infiltrated the group and began answering curious people’s questions with their dogma.
Among those was the anti-vaccine campaigner Naomi Wolf. Although not a medical doctor and not armed with any actual data, on April 19 she tweeted a link to the Facebook group with this message: “Hundreds of women on this page say that they are having bleeding/clotting after vaccination, or that they bleed oddly AROUND vaccinated women. Unconfirmed, needs more investigation, but lots of reports.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other reputable medical and scientific sources have repeatedly debunked any connection between the vaccines and fertility problems and certainly against the idea that vaccinated people somehow radiate bad medicine to those in close contact with them.
Nevertheless, Centner, the Miami school leader, picked up this theme and made school policy out of it.
Ironically, Centner Academy is not a faith-based school. In fact, on its website, the school celebrates diversity and inclusion, stating that it is “a school that embraces the inherent dignity of all life and engages students in advancing equity, overcoming biases and the pervasive effects of ‘group think.’”
Yet the group think of an anti-vaccine conspiracy theory became policy for the school. In her communication with teachers and parents, Centner wrote: “It is our policy, to the extent possible, not to employ anyone who has taken the experimental COVID-19 injection until further information is known. This was not an easy decision to make. We made this decision with several doctors who are on the front line investigating the reported issues as described below. It was a consensus from our advisors that until this topic is investigated more thoroughly, it is in the best interests of the children to protect them from the unknown implications of being in close proximity for the entire day with a teacher who has very recently taken the COVID-19 injection.”
Confronted with the impossibility of her beliefs about the vaccine, Centner doubled down.
Confronted with the impossibility of her beliefs about the vaccine, Centner doubled down, which led to step four in what NPR and Graphika outline in their research: Make waves in mainstream media.
That, in turn, led to step five: Morph to fit the messenger. “Because misinformation about vaccines is not grounded in data, it can mutate to fit any political message or worldview,” NRP reported. “Vaccine myths about fertility and reproduction are particularly potent because they affect a large swath of the population, particularly when they incorporate myths about vaccinated women spreading the side effects.”
The final step in perpetuating a lie, NPR and Graphika found, is to repeat the cycle with new lies. Their research found that after a few months, the news cycle moved on to other claims, but the damage of the menstrual and fertility claims already was done, from Miami to France and Brazil.
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