Novak Djokovic’s victorious return to the US Open this year was heralded as the triumph of an “ageless” athlete. His “greatness”, The Guardian reported, “has been defined by his ability to rise from difficult losses stronger than before”. But for the pharmaceutical giant Moderna, it came as something of a blow.
“Djokovic Crowned Anti-vaccine Hero after US Open Win,” howled the title of an internal report. It continued: “The optics of Djokovic, whose vaccine opposition barred him from competing in the 2022 US Open, returning to and winning the Moderna-sponsored competition bolsters anti-vaccine claims that vaccines — and mandates — are unnecessary.”
The report rated news surrounding Djokovic as “high-risk”, noting that “vaccine opponents are celebrating” the tennis champion and that some on social media “mockingly point out that Moderna is a US Open sponsor”. Other alerts, produced by a partnership blending marketing executives with former FBI and Secret Service analysts, also cited concerns around drug industry profits as a source of misinformation.
Far from viral deception, much of the content flagged by Moderna as “misinformation” and a supposed danger to public health was nothing of the sort, it was legitimate discussion of vaccine-related issues. But the Moderna misinformation reports, reported here for the first time, reveal what the pharmaceutical company is willing to do to shape public discourse around its marquee product. And, even affect policy-making.
Moderna did incredibly well out of the pandemic. It was shot from a fledgling biotech firm to a household name, having created one of the most effective vaccines during the outbreak. The mRNA Covid-19 vaccine catapulted the company to a $100 billion valuation and minted five new billionaires, including the chief executive, Stéphane Bancel, its chairman, Noubar Afeyan, co-founder Robert Langer, president Stephen Hoge, and Timothy Springer, a Harvard Medical School professor and early investor.
But as demand for its vaccinations has diminished, inevitably, so too have its earnings. This year, its only marketable product lies unused and the company has recorded steep losses. Moderna has also been forced to pay royalty payments to NIAID, the US government agency that helped produce the basic research that underpins the mRNA vaccine technology. As a result, in January, Bancel announced a price hike of up to $130 a dose, far higher than the $15-26 for American federal contracts, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We’re expecting a 90% reduction in demand,” Bancel said, when he was asked to defend the decision. “As you can see, we’re losing economies of scale.”
With its profits evaporating, Moderna embarked on a flashy new marketing campaign that features a child chasing a red string that transforms into a ribbon, which the narrator explains is an mRNA strand that could unlock cures for all types of diseases. And its latest television advert depicts the company’s coronavirus vaccine as emblematic of a healthy lifestyle. Over some cool music, the narrator says, “make vaccination against Covid-19 a part of your health routine: Spikevax that body”.
The most important thing for Moderna is that people keep having their jabs. Smart ads are part of that. But more important is to push back aggressively against any prevailing anti-vax narrative and engage where possible in any discussions around vaccine policy. That’s where the Moderna disinformation department comes in.
Behind the scenes, the marketing arm of the company has been working with former law enforcement officials and public health officials to monitor and influence vaccine policy. Key to this is a drug industry-funded NGO called Public Good Projects. According to documents we have seen, PGP works closely with social media platforms, government agencies and news websites to confront the “root cause of vaccine hesitancy” by rapidly identifying and “shutting down misinformation”. A network of 45,000 healthcare professionals are given talking points “and advice on how to respond when vaccine misinformation goes mainstream”, according to an email from Moderna.
Moderna’s disinformation arm is perpetuating the public discourse wars that have been raging since early in the pandemic, aimed at shutting down anything that might undermine Covid-19-related policies, including lockdowns and efforts to encourage mass vaccinations. These documents provide a new window into the process that has roiled speech debates over the last three years.
With PGP, Moderna is monitoring a huge range of mainstream outlets, as well as unconventional ones, such as the Steam online gaming community and Medium. Meanwhile, Moderna also retains Talkwalker which uses its “Blue Silk” artificial intelligence to monitor vaccine-related conversations across 150 million websites in nearly 200 countries. Discussions around “competitor” issues, including discussions of Pfizer are flagged as well as vaccine hesitancy.
Their monitoring team includes Moderna’s global intelligence division, which is run by Nikki Rutman, who spent nearly 20 years as an analyst with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Rutman was working from the FBI’s Boston office during the COVID-19 effort known as “Operation Warp Speed”, which involved the FBI conducting weekly cybersecurity meetings with the Boston headquartered Moderna. She is among many former law enforcement agents now with the vaccine maker. The involvement of former law enforcement reflects a wider trend in the misinformation-space, as the Department of Homeland Security and FBI have increasingly leaned on social media platforms to shape content decisions as a national security issue.
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The reports issued by the department, which are circulated around staff, include colour-coded warnings about the severity of various anti-vaccine narratives. The high and medium alerts include explanations of the news source and why it matters, followed by a listing of “low-risk narratives we are monitoring” that “don’t currently warrant any action”. If and when a response is needed, “our team will notify the appropriate stakeholders with recommendations”.
According to one report we have seen, Musk is deemed to be “high risk”. Specifically, a Musk video that ridiculed media and government officials who claimed the Covid-19 vaccine was “100% effective” against the virus. The report did not identify any false statements, but warned that his video highlighted the fact that “deception by health authorities and health care providers during the pandemic” would “lay the groundwork to sow distrust in credible sources on vaccine safety and effectiveness”.
Another high profile critic of Big Pharma featured in a Moderna report is Russell Brand. In September, he was flagged because some on social media suspect that he has been targeted for his “anti-vaccine beliefs”.
The report featured a video of Brand decrying pharmaceutical profits and making the claim that Moderna and Pfizer made “$1,000 of profit every second” from the pandemic. The claim is bundled into a “high-risk” alert that warns Brand’s views are “circulated in anti-vaccine spaces where he is viewed as a truth-teller and threat to authority”. Moderna further notes that Brand received support from “high-profile” figures such as Elon Musk and Tucker Carlson.
None of the reports that we have seen makes any attempt to dispute the claims made. Rather the claims are automatically deemed “misinformation” if they encourage vaccine hesitancy. We approached Moderna for comment, but they didn’t respond.
“What often flies under the banner of combating disinformation is, in this case, nothing but corporate public relations, trying to spin public narratives in directions favorable to the corporation’s interests,” said Aaron Kheriaty, a bioethicist, and fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. “Does anyone really want to live under a regime where their social media feed is essentially curated by government or by multinational corporate interests that stand to profit, influencing opinion on these issues?”
This is where the line between PR and lobbying gets blurred for Moderna. It’s all very well for a company to be information gathering, and attempting to send out a positive message. But it’s quite another for it to be using that information for more problematic purposes. Of particular interest in this respect is PGP — the company at the heart of Moderna’s misinformation department.
Financed through a $1,275,000 donation from the Biotechnology and Innovation Organization, lobbyists representing Pfizer and Moderna, PGP maintains close ties to government and media. Moderna first worked closely with PGP on a programme called “Stronger” in 2021-22 in which it identified misinformation and shaped content decisions on social media. PGP was particularly well-equipped to help with this since it had backdoor access to Twitter data, known as the “firehose”, and helped Twitter formulate its pandemic-related speech policies.
We have discovered, through internal emails from Twitter, that PGP’s misinformation reporting team was frequently in contact with Todd O’Boyle, a lobbyist at Twitter, and sent him periodic Excel sheets with accounts to amplify or censor. Their intention, as we have gleaned from the emails exchanged, was not only to combat misinformation, but also to affect the content and tenor of public debate. While PGP identified some obvious falsehoods, such as claims that the vaccines contained microchips or were devised intentionally to kill patients, many tweets flagged as misinformation were simply critical of vaccine passports and other policies designed to coerce vaccination.
The relationship may have extended into the law enforcement space. Last year, Vijaya Gadde, then serving as Twitter’s general counsel, advised the Department of Homeland Security’s task force on combating misinformation on trusted fact-checking organisations. In an email to her colleagues, reported here for the first time, Gadde recommended that the government meet with PGP to decipher Covid-19 speech issues.
Moderna’s corporate intelligence and marketing team has worked closely with PGP again this year in its bid to shape the vaccine discourse as take-up drops off a cliff. The partnership expanded again in October with an official training programme, developed by Moderna and PGP, alongside the American Board of Internal Medicine, to help healthcare workers identify medical misinformation. The online course, called the “Infodemic Training Program”, represents an official partnership between biopharma and the NGO world. But none of PGP’s recent work with Moderna is disclosed on its website or in the Infodemic Training Program. PGP did not respond to requests for comment.
As the pandemic abates, Moderna is, if anything, ratcheting up its surveillance operation, with a keen interest in anything relating to policies designed to coerce vaccination. In particular, the company is closely tracking elected officials and recently passed laws in Arkansas and Texas which restricted vaccine mandates.
“Politicians attempting to ban COVID-19 mandates — or at least claiming to — signals growing resistance to COVID-19 mitigations,” reads one of the Moderna alerts. Given the company avoided publicly commenting on the mandate debate, this is revelatory.
This attitude is borne out in a report from October 5, which flags an Elon Musk message on X that elaborates on the billionaire’s opposition to mandates. Musk expressed outrage at the “demand that people *must* take the vaccine and multiple boosters,” adding that, until the courts overturned the Biden employer mandate, “SpaceX and many other companies would have been forced to fire anyone who refused to get vaccinated.”
The report notes: “Musk has one of the largest platforms in the world—literally and figuratively. He increasingly uses that platform to elevate fringe vaccine opponents and conspiracy theorists.”
But despite the growing backlash against social media censorship, the network of fact-checking nonprofits has grown at an industrial pace, providing opaque opportunities for private and public interests to take subtle control over the public discourse. Such sophistication in blending public-health messaging and corporate advertising should concern anyone with an interest in how government controls free speech.
“This is an interesting peek behind the disinformation industry, what it actually does,” said Kheriaty, the bioethicist. ”It’s about controlling a narrative, controlling the flow of information, controlling how people think about public policy, like the vaccine mandate, and how people think about a particular product that a corporation is profiting from,” he added. “It’s deeply disturbing.”