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Kraken, Elon Musk and dead Canadian doctors: Disinformation surges 3 years into the pandemic


Delaney Barth knows exactly how her mother died – because she was the one who found her body and the suicide note.

After a long battle with mental illness, Louise Feddema, a physician in Canmore, Alta., took her own life on New Year’s Eve, 2021. Barth and her sister had arrived at their mother’s house after Christmas with their father, only to find her body, a note and a list of important contacts and next steps. 

So when Barth later discovered that Feddema’s name was circulating on a fake list of 80 doctors whose deaths were linked to the COVID-19 vaccine, she found it “truly insulting.”


Louise Feddema, pictured with her daughters Delaney and Jaylynn Barth. Feddema is included in the Canadian doctor death conspiracy, despite the fact she died by suicide.


Delaney Barth

The bogus theory – promoted by a small group of Canadian doctors who have spent the pandemic falsely claiming or suggesting that the vaccine kills or harms people – insists, without proof, that the vaccine may have played a role in the death of an ever-growing number of physicians.

Global News has spent months investigating the list of doctors and speaking to their families and has found no link of the COVID vaccine to any of their deaths. Where Global News was able to determine the most likely cause of death, it was most often cancer, heart attack or suicide. At least one wasn’t even vaccinated.

And some family members say beyond the lies about their loved ones, they themselves have also become the target of hate mail and abuse.

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“This is not OK. This is not right. I’ve been getting calls into my husband’s clinic from patients who have seen this and they’re calling and leaving horrible messages,” Catherine Cole, wife of Dr. Christopher Cole, who died in May this year after a battle with mental-health issues, says.

Having to field calls from anti-vaxxers while trying to mourn his loss had been “brutal,” she says through tears. “It had nothing to do with COVID. This is insanity.”


Click to play video: 'Hate speech surging on Twitter under Elon Musk'


Hate speech surging on Twitter under Elon Musk


But, the truth cannot contain the spread of the theory which, along with other COVID falsehoods – is no longer confined to the fringes of the internet. After Twitter dismantled its tools to root out COVID disinformation in November, disinformation accounts and bad actors that were previously banned from the website reemerged under Elon Musk’s ownership. And, much like the virus and its new subvariant XBB.1.5, that disinformation is now spreading with reckless abandon.

Alongside Musk’s Twitter, winter pressures on health services and the latest COVID-19 subvariant, also known as Kraken, has helped disinformation thrive in recent months, according to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).

The Canadian doctor conspiracy theory had 3.3 million views on Twitter between Nov. 20 and Dec. 20, CCDH data shows. During the week of Nov. 23 alone, when Twitter removed its disinformation policy, the theory reached 1.4 million views.

Its surge in popularity at that time coincided with the release of misinformation film Died Suddenly, with “Died Suddenly” and “Vaccine Death” now routinely trending hashtags.


A conspiracy theory baselessly claims that the Covid-19 vaccine may have played a role in the deaths of 80 doctors in Canada.


Druthers.net

“In the absence of any real evidence that COVID vaccines are harmful, we have seen anti-vaxxers adopt a strategy of baselessly linking any unexpected deaths to COVID vaccines,” says Callum Head, CCDH’s head of research.

“This narrative is reaching millions of people in multiple countries, so it poses a real risk of dissuading people from getting vaccines that can keep them healthy.”

If the theory is “allowed to fester unchecked,” Head says, its impact will continue to grow.

But, just who is supposed to “check” this resurgence of disinformation?

Medical regulatory bodies have become victims of it themselves. In November, the Gateway Pundit – which Twitter banned in 2021 for peddling conspiracy theories and reinstated after Musk’s takeover – featured a false video interview from an Alberta physician on its website. The video claimed the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario (CPSO) suggested unvaccinated patients take psychiatric medication, which resulted in an onslaught of abuse and death threats towards the CPSO – about 6,000 in just over a week – and a police report.

In Ontario alone, there are 50 active cases against 30 doctors for allegedly spreading misinformation about COVID-19. Just two have concluded in three years.

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“Misinformation is a significant issue that is resulting in an erosion of the patient-physician relationship,” a CPSO spokesperson told Global News, “and it is exacerbating the challenges faced by our health-care system.”

It’s also exacerbating the grieving process for these doctors’ families.

For Barth, it’s the latest insult from a portion of society that she believes pushed her mother over the edge.

“She quit practising a year before her death because of the number of people pressuring her to give them vaccine exemptions,” Barth says.

“I’m so angry that someone has done this. It was so traumatic losing her to suicide and finding her body and for someone now to do this, it just feels so callous and cruel.”

’80 Canadian MDs VAXXED and Dead’

In November, 80 smiling faces appeared on the front page of a fringe Canadian newspaper called Druthers. The headline read: “80 Canadian MDs VAXXED and Dead.”

Underneath each photograph: the doctor’s name, age, hometown, date of death, occupation and a few words about how they died. Many simply say “died unexpectedly.”

In many cases, this is true. But not in the way it is implied.


An article on the front page of fringe Canadian newspaper Druthers claimed the Covid-19 vaccine may have played a role in the deaths of 80 Canadian doctors.


Druthers.net

The Druthers article was an attempt to buttress a conspiracy theory that had been circulating for months, parts of which have been debunked. Its origins were murky – seemingly first appearing in late July, when three doctors at an Ontario hospital, Trillium Health Partners in Mississauga, died within a week.

Ensuing rumours that linked the deaths to the COVID-19 vaccine led Trillium to put out a statement in an attempt to kibosh the swirling disinformation. The doctors had actually died from different types of cancer, but the damage was already done.

 

Social media was awash with dire warnings of the fourth booster, and the three doctors’ names were jotted down alongside an expanding group of Canadian physicians whose deaths were falsely linked to the vaccine, without cause or explanation.

The burgeoning conspiracy theory was soon picked up by tech-millionaire turned anti-vaccination advocate Steve Kirsch, who in August wrote about “14 young Canadian docs” who died after getting a shot of COVID vaccine.

In November, U.S. conservative radio show host Stew Peters, who also produced Died Suddenly, claimed in a Facebook video that “hundreds” of Canadian doctors had died. The video has reached countries as far away as New Zealand, spawning other country-specific, dead-doctor theories.

By mid-October, according to the CCDH, it was being mentioned on Twitter 8,000 times per day — despite disinformation-flagging tools still in place.

The theory, of course, isn’t true. But the doctors it is making examples of are.

By speaking to families and looking at obituaries and media reports, Global News determined the cause of death of 48 of these doctors: 10 died from cancer, three perished in car accidents, one died during a fall while climbing K2, one drowned while trying to save his son, five suffered heart attacks and six died by suicide. Others battled ongoing or abrupt illnesses unrelated to COVID-19 or the family preferred not to say but confirmed it was not related to the vaccine. One man, Dragan Stojimirovic, was not vaccinated and never practised medicine in Canada.

“This makes absolutely no sense,” his wife, Anita Stojimirovic, told Global News in a cafe in west Toronto. “We don’t know how they know about him, he hasn’t practised since 1993 in Serbia.

“And he died from a heart attack.”

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All of the 29 families Global News spoke to were outraged that their loved one’s death was being publicly misrepresented. Some had been fielding abusive messages from members of the public who believed it to be true.

Tomas Ryan, best friend of Richard Cartier, who died in July during a climbing expedition on K2, said Cartier’s fall was “the sole cause of his death, no question.” K2 is considered the world’s most dangerous mountain.

“He was in great shape and reached an altitude close to 8,000 meters the day before without supplemental O2. That is impossible to do for someone not at 100 per cent capacity following rigorous training and preparation,” Ryan said.

“Blaming his death on the COVID vaccine is just plain stupidity, it makes absolutely no sense, and is not supported by any evidence.”


Mountaineer and Quebec doctor Richard Cartier, pictured at Everest base camp, was killed by a fall on K2, considered the world’s most dangerous mountain. However, he has been caught up in the conspiracy as well.


Tomas Ryan

Beverley Alam, wife of Mohammad Shoaib Alam, who died in February 2021 and whose photo in the Druthers article bears the caption “died 24 hours after first jab,” says while the timing is accurate, the cause of death is wrong. He had a fatal heart attack. One of her husband’s patients had linked him to the conspiracy theory after hearing of his death, she says. Someone had even put up a poster about it in High River, Alta., where they live.

“He had a family history of heart disease and he smoked,” Alam says. “He was an overworked family doctor who took more care of his patients than himself.”

Several families say they have written to Druthers to ask for the article to be retracted and taken down from their website, with no response. Druthers editor Shawn Jason Laponte did not reply to questions from Global News.

Those at the centre of the conspiracy theory – two Canadian doctors – did respond, however, they failed to prove that their theory is anything more than a hoax.

How Canadian doctors are sowing disinformation

Two articles accompanied the Druthers newspaper spread in November. One, written by Ontario physician Mark Trozzi, stated that doctors giving out COVID-19 vaccines were complying with a “criminal injection campaign” and playing a “sick game of Russian roulette” by being vaccinated themselves. The other was an open letter from Alberta physician William Makis, calling for the Canadian Medical Association to investigate the deaths.

Both Makis and Trozzi use their medical credentials when promoting their theories online. But neither are practising doctors.

Trozzi — who worked at Hasting Highlands Health Services Center in Bancroft, Ont., from 2017 to 2021 —  is being investigated by the CPSO for allegedly granting medical exemptions to patients in which he described vaccines as “injectable COVID-19 experimental genetic therapies.” His licence was restricted in October 2021 and suspended on Dec 8, 2022.


Ontario doctor Mark Trozzi has described vaccines as ‘injectable COVID-19 experimental genetic therapies.’.


drtrozzi.org

Makis was previously a nuclear physician in Edmonton, but his medical licence is now inactive. He has been embroiled in a long legal battle with Alberta Health Services over his termination and his registration lapsed in February 2019.

Makis claims to be behind the list of 80 doctors, which he says is now at 93. His “volunteers” compile the list from medical institutions across Canada, the bulk of which has come from the Canadian Medical Association’s “In Memoriam” page, he told Global News. But, according to the CMA, they don’t track Canadian doctor deaths. Their “In Memoriam” page includes tributes provided by families and is not a comprehensive list.

His data set also does not extend further back than 2019.

William Makis


Alberta physician William Makis, whose licence is inactive, claims to be behind the list of 80 doctors.


YouTube

Makis vehemently denies that he has claimed that the vaccine was the cause of the doctors’ deaths, saying instead: “I suspect that COVID-19 vaccines may have played a role in their deaths.”

While the efficacy of vaccines in a worldwide population that has almost all either had COVID-19 or been vaccinated is under debate, their safety is not. In Canada, of the 95.6 million COVID vaccine doses that had been administered as of Dec. 9, just 0.011 per cent resulted in a serious adverse reaction. Of the 397 reports of death after vaccination, none have been definitively linked to the vaccine.

But vaccination rates have waned, along with concerns over the virus itself. As of Dec 4, only 50.4 per cent of Canadians have received their first booster and just 21.9 per cent have received a second booster.

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These statistics don’t matter to proponents of disinformation. After being asked repeatedly for any medical evidence or proof of any potential link between the vaccines and the doctor’s deaths, Makis accused Global News of “engaging in ad hominem attacks” and refused to answer. When informed that the doctor’s families were upset their deaths were being misrepresented, he accused Global News of “making this up” and asked for conclusive autopsy reports.

Trozzi said he stands by Makis’s research and extended his condolences to families who “are offended or troubled by the issues raised by Dr. Makis’s analysis, and my efforts to bring them to the attention of the public.”


Click to play video: 'More must be done to combat COVID-19 disinformation sharing in Canada, researcher says'


More must be done to combat COVID-19 disinformation sharing in Canada, researcher says


Meanwhile, Makis continues to promote conspiracy theories online, most prominently on alt-right website Gettr. He recently claimed that September 2022 was the deadliest month for Canadian doctors in four years, releasing a list of 67 doctors who died.

Global News investigated those 67 names, too. Of that group, one is a doctor in Australia, one name is mentioned twice, one appears to be a lawyer, one had their licence revoked in 2010 for sexually abusing a patient and 54 were long retired – some as early as the mid-1990s. About two-thirds of this list were older than 80 when they died, several were in their late 90s and one was 101.

But Makis’s crusade continues – with the help of a slew of familiar names in Canadian disinformation.

An unprecedented disciplinary hearing

On Nov. 23, more than 2,000 people tuned in to an Ontario Physicians and Surgeons Discipline Tribunal hearing on YouTube for three local doctors accused of incompetent COVID-related conduct: Patrick Phillips, Crystal Luchkiw and Mark Trozzi. The audience for this kind of proceeding was unprecedented – but there was a reason for that.

As the tribunal chair outlined the agenda, audience numbers rapidly ticked upwards. It soon became apparent that they had responded to a call to action.

“Time to support the doctors that have risked everything, standing for their oath!” one message from the anti-vaccine mandate group Canadian Frontline Nurses read. The message was circulated before the hearing, calling for its followers to tune in, or if they couldn’t make it, to simply inundate the CPSO with requests for the link.


Click to play video: '‘It’s killing people’: The great COVID-19 infodemic'


‘It’s killing people’: The great COVID-19 infodemic


And the CPSO had been inundated – but not only because of the hearing. Days earlier, William Makis appeared in another TikTok video, accusing the College of sending a memo to its members suggesting that unvaccinated patients had a “mental problem” and that they should take psychiatric medication.

By his own admission, this wasn’t true; Makis told Global News his interview was based on an old COVID FAQ on the CPSO website that said physicians should work with patients to manage anxieties related to the vaccine and “in cases of serious concern,” prescription medication or referral to psychotherapy were options. The page was updated in October to include more specific wording.

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But the video had already gone viral. After it was picked up by notorious disinformation website the Gateway Pundit, thousands of emails of abuse streamed into the CPSO – 6,000 in about 10 days.

“Your failures have been cataclysmic to civilization. You destroyed (sic) everything on a fake quest. It is too late now, and you should really start settling all your affairs,” read one email.

“You better hope that it’s the military that politely removes you from your homes. All the other scenarios are even worse for you,” said another.

As the emails and phone calls grew more grotesque and heated in their murderous tones, the CPSO say they called Toronto police to report the abuse.

Toronto police could not immediately confirm that they were notified.

The CPSO says that this stalling allows disinformation campaigns to continue with impunity as the investigations against Trozzi, Phillips and Luchkiw drag on.

After all, Trozzi and Phillips have been fighting legal proceedings brought by the CPSO since late last year. Trozzi was accused of failing to comply with investigations into allegations he issued false medical exemptions for the COVID-19 vaccine and for his “misleading, incorrect or inflammatory statements” about vaccinations.

Phillips is the subject of two investigations – one for allegations of comments on social media against vaccines and public health measures, including comparing COVID-19 public health measures in Canada to the genocide of Jewish people; the second for allegedly releasing a tranche of confidential documents on Twitter about that investigation.


Click to play video: 'More work must be done to combat COVID-19, vaccine misinformation: Dr. Tam'


More work must be done to combat COVID-19, vaccine misinformation: Dr. Tam


The CPSO suspended Luchkiw’s licence on March 17, 2022, after she received complaints for allegedly not following COVID-19 restrictions, allegedly issuing an immunocompromised patient with a vaccine exemption and allegedly spreading false information on a podcast about the vaccine, including that it was a government hoax.

The virtual hearing on Nov. 23, which was virtually stormed by 2,000 people, was the latest attempt for the doctors’ lawyer, Michael Alexander, to absolve his clients of any wrongdoing. Over three hours, he argued that they should not face disciplinary hearings for writing vaccine exemptions for patients who are “being coerced into taking the vaccine, contrary to the principles of informed consent” and they should be allowed to express their views, “especially in a public health crisis.”

The three doctors appeared briefly onscreen at different times, but none spoke. Trozzi wore black scrubs and spoke intermittently to someone out of the frame – despite the College’s claim that he had informed it he was no longer practising.

The tribunal’s decision was reserved. Almost two months on, there is still no decision.

The College continues to argue that to address the complaints, it needs the provincial Ministry of Health to intervene. The Ministry has so far refused.

But government documents, released under an Access to Information request, show that they considered stepping in a year ago.

Regulators fail to hold doctors accountable

Last January, a  Global News investigation uncovered a web of Canadian doctors spreading disinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine.

In response to that story, the director of Ontario Government Relations wrote to an advisor asking for a set of policy options that the Ontario Ministry of Health could use to intervene in COVID-19 investigations involving physicians, according to government documents. The requested policy options included “expedited review processes, consequences for those issuing exemptions, and associated implications.”


Click to play video: '‘Unacceptable’ for doctors to spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation: Ontario health minister'


‘Unacceptable’ for doctors to spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation: Ontario health minister


A report was put together by a senior analyst, outlining the issues and comparing them to actions taken in other provinces, and sent back on Jan. 24, 2022. One line in the report said “there may be additional actions that the Minister may take” but it should not interfere with the integrity of the CPSO’s processes. A line later in the report determined that the Ministry becoming involved “may be viewed as interfering” – despite, of course, the CPSO begging for that interference.

The Ministry refused to answer questions on why they decided not to intervene, stating simply that the CPSO is responsible for investigating physician complaints and the two entities continue to work together.

Ontario isn’t alone in its hands-off approach. There has been little success for any regulatory body across Canada to discipline medical professionals sharing disinformation since the pandemic began.

In January, the RCMP launched an investigation into a website allegedly selling false COVID-19 vaccine and mask exemptions after it was highlighted in a Global News article. The website was linked to B.C. physicians Gwyllyn Goddard and Stephen Malthouse.

Eleven months later, the RCMP says the investigation was concluded and was no longer active. They refused to say if any action was taken.

This lack of action from regulators, occurring alongside an online landscape that has laid fertile ground for disinformation sharing, has experts concerned.

‘It’s rude, inconsiderate, mean and cheap’

After welcoming back a slew of people previously barred from Twitter for spreading COVID-19 disinformation under Musk’s new leadership, the platform went even further on Nov. 23 – quietly dismantling its policy against COVID-19 misinformation.

But disinformation didn’t quietly creep back – it exploded.

After the online release of misinformation documentary Died Suddenly on Nov. 21, the phrase “Died Suddenly” trended on Twitter for days. That helped it reach more than 10 million views on alternative video website Rumble in a little over a week.

Disinformation is now being shared by huge accounts, including those verified with Twitter Blue.

Last week, tweets mentioning the anti-vaxx trope ‘Died Suddenly’ spiked by 328 per cent after NFL player Damar Hamlin suffered a heart attack during a match, according to CCDH data. A week later, #VaccineDeath was trending on Twitter, linking the collapsing of various sportspeople to the COVID-19 vaccine. The same conspiracies swirled when a CTV reporter had a medical emergency live on air on Jan. 8 and when Lisa-Marie Presley died.


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Damar Hamlin showing ‘remarkable’ signs of improvement, but still in critical condition, Buffalo Bills say


Twitter did not respond to requests for comment. It’s unclear if they still have a media department.

The Canadian doctor theory has made it on to other mainstream platforms, too. On Dec. 21, failed PPC candidate Michelle Lindsay shared a viral video on Instagram of suspended Ontario doctor Chris Shoemaker speaking at a Toronto protest about the theory, falsely claiming 80 doctors had died in 60 days. That video has been shared tens of thousands of times. It was flagged on Instagram, by its third-party fact-checkers, as “partly false.”

Meanwhile, without recourse, those small few Canadian doctors continue trying to persuade the public that COVID-19 vaccines could be killing doctors.

After a sabbatical, Trozzi returned to medical practice on Dec. 7 to take over Luchkiw’s patients following her suspension. Trozzi’s licence was suspended the following day. His lawyer, Alexander, decried the suspension, telling Global News: “Further action is pending.”

Luchkiw, Trozzi and Phillips continue to appear in online videos and interviews, sharing their claims about the vaccine. Phillips is still listed as the director of the Canadian Covid TeleHealth Inc (CCTH), which offers the controversial and unproven parasitic treatment ivermectin for COVID-19. Makis continues to add to his list of doctors and promote it online.


Click to play video: 'Experts call for change after investigation reveals doctors spreading COVID-19 misinformation'


Experts call for change after investigation reveals doctors spreading COVID-19 misinformation


And families in mourning continue to be caught in the middle of it all.

“It’s rude, inconsiderate, mean and cheap to use (Lorne’s) image and name for a political cause,” says Valérie Lamarre, whose husband Lorne Aaron died after developing a complication from his second bone marrow transplant after a 25-year battle with leukemia.

“He did not pass because of the COVID vaccine and did not get leukemia because of (the) COVID vaccine.”

Other families are fighting back.

For Christmas, Marie-Pier Hendriks, the daughter of Edmundston, N.B., physician Edouard Hendriks – who died in February due to what his wife Suzie says was likely a heart arrhythmia – made a donation to charity Gifts of Hope. She bought a COVID-19 kit for an at-risk community, but she didn’t make the donation in her own name – she made it in the name of Mark Trozzi.

“Dr. Trozzi, your recent article about the false claims concerning the doctors dying after the vaccine inspired me to make this donation in your name,” she wrote in the card, emailed to his lawyer.

“Thanks for bringing COVID care around the world.”


Marie-Pier Hendriks, daughter of one of the doctors caught up in the conspiracy theory, purchased a Covid-19 kit on behalf of Mark Trozzi as a Christmas gift.


Supplied





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