Anti-vaccination ad mysteriously appears at NYC bus stop

At first glance, it looked just like an official New York City public service announcement that listed the Top 10 reasons people should get vaccinated against COVID-19.

>> Winnie Hu and Michael GoldThe New York Times
Published : 3 Dec 2021, 02:27 PM
Updated : 3 Dec 2021, 02:34 PM

But a closer reading revealed that the poster, seen at a B43 bus stop in the Crown Heights neighborhood in Brooklyn, displayed 10 reasons not to get vaccinated. Reason No. 1: “It could kill you.”

The false and blatantly misleading anti-vaccination ad caused an uproar on social media Thursday at a time when city health officials are pushing hard to boost the vaccination rate as a new threat from the omicron variant looms. About 69% of city residents of all ages have been fully vaccinated.

The poster imitated an official vaccination ad released by the city — it used the same font, layout and even the same shade of robin’s egg blue — but conveyed the opposite message.

It directed people to go to Macabim.org, website of a group that described itself as “a dedicated group of doctors, scientists, and activists” who oppose vaccination.

The group — which promotes the use of the drugs hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin to treat COVID-19, even though they are not known to treat the disease and have not been federally approved for that purpose — also listed among its members the names of several doctors who have spread misinformation about vaccines.

Transit officials said Thursday that the ad had not been approved by the city or sold by the company that installs ads at its bus stops, JCDecaux North America.

Seth Stein, a spokesperson for the city’s Department of Transportation, wrote on Twitter that the anti-vaccination ad was being removed.

“Most likely someone popped open the glass,” he wrote. “Investigation ongoing. Disinformation has no place in our city, or our street furniture.”

JCDecaux North America also said on Twitter it had no knowledge of the anti-vaccination ad, calling it "unwelcome and unauthorized copy.”

At the bottom-right corner of the ad was a phone number purporting to belong to a company called LG Media, which says on its Instagram account that it handles advertising on bus shelters in the Crown Heights and Borough Park sections of Brooklyn.

The company, which also had a smaller, unrelated ad on the bus shelter with a different phone number, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Joseph Hodge, a spokesperson for JCDecaux, said in an email that LG Media was an agency that had purchased advertising space from the company. He added that JCDecaux was investigating the matter.

Hodge also reiterated that the anti-vaccination poster violated “the advertising guidelines” for the bus shelter space, although he did not elaborate on those guidelines or provide details of the company’s review process.

The misleading ad appeared on a busy avenue in Crown Heights lined with businesses that cater to the neighborhood’s large Orthodox Jewish population, including kosher restaurants, groceries and shops selling religious objects.

It was not clear how long it was displayed at the bus shelter, but by 1:15 p.m. Thursday, a maintenance worker who declined to give his name had replaced it with a city-approved poster that urged people to prepare for emergencies.

The bus stop is in the 11213 ZIP code in East Crown Heights, which has a higher rate of COVID cases and deaths than the city overall, according to city health data.

The ZIP code also has one of the lower vaccination rates in the city, with 59.9% of residents having received at least one dose of a vaccine, compared to 69.8% of Brooklyn residents and 77.1% of all New York City residents.

Throughout the summer, as city officials and many Orthodox Jewish leaders advised vaccination, unsubstantiated rumors about the coronavirus’s vaccine’s potential adverse effects spread through some ultra-Orthodox circles.

During the early stages of the pandemic, misinformation campaigns in these communities fueled a resistance to virus-related restrictions.

New York City health officials, worried that low vaccination rates could fuel a resurgence of the virus in some neighborhoods, have spent millions of dollars trying to combat vaccine skepticism.

The city’s health department has partnered with community-based organizations to educate community members, leading to ads like the one that the anti-vaccination poster was meant to mimic.

The poster encouraging vaccination was put up in partnership with the Jewish Orthodox Women’s Medical Association, or JOWMA, a group that has been working to combat misinformation about the coronavirus vaccine circulating in Orthodox circles.

Sarah Becker, chair of JOWMA’s COVID-19 task force, said that she was not familiar with Macabim and did not know who had funded the anti-vaccination poster. But she linked it to broader efforts to target the ultra-Orthodox community with anti-vaccine messaging.

“The anti-vaccine movement is a well-funded movement that specifically targets specific groups,” she said. “And among the groups they target are Orthodox Jews.”

Still, Becker found a silver lining in the anti-vaccination poster’s imitation of JOWMA’s pro-vaccination public service announcement.

“It was a pleasant surprise,” she said. “Like, hey, we’re really out there if people are using our ads to flip this. We must be really reaching people.”

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Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher