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Who is the 'pizza king’? The secret language being used by anti-vaccine groups to skirt detection

UniqueThis 9 Jul 21

Some anti-vaccination groups on Facebook are changing their names to euphemisms like “Dance Party” or “Dinner Party,” and using code words to fit those themes in order to skirt bans from Facebook, as the company attempts to crack down on misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines.

The groups, which are largely private and unsearchable but retain large user bases accrued during the years Facebook permitted anti-vaccination content, also swap out language to fit the new themes and provide code legends, according to screenshots provided to NBC News by multiple members of the groups.

One major “dance party” group has more than 40,000 followers and has stopped allowing new users amid public scrutiny. The backup group for “Dance Party,” known as “Dinner Party” and created by the same moderators, has more than 20,000 followers.

Other anti-vaccine influencers on Instagram use similar language swaps, such as referring to vaccinated people as “swimmers” and the act of vaccination as joining a “swim club.”

A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment but pointed NBC News to the company's efforts to drive users to authoritative sources on Covid-19 vaccines.

The ban-evasion maneuvers by anti-vaccination groups on Facebook and Instagram are ratcheting up as the White House has increased pressure on the social media platforms to do more to contain vaccine misinformation and disinformation.

“They’re killing people,” President Joe Biden said Friday about vaccine misinformation on Facebook, later softening his language to say he hoped the platform would do more about “outrageous misinformation.”

Facebook spokesman Kevin McAlister responded Saturday: “The facts show that Facebook is helping save lives. Period.”

The back-and-forth was not lost on people in the anti-vaccine groups. In a post with more than 4,000 reactions and 1,000 comments, an administrator of “Dance Party” mentioned that the “WH press had a press briefing and mentioned a few notable groups that had been closed and some that are beating the bot system.” 

Beating Facebook’s moderation system “feels like a badge of honor,” the administrator wrote, followed by a crying-laughing emoji. At the end of the post, the administrator reminded users to stay away from “unapproved words,” and pointed them to a code legend on the side of the page.

Using code words to evade bans is not new among the anti-vaccine community, and it borrows from a playbook used for years by extremists on Facebook and elsewhere. The practice leans heavily on “leetspeak,” or modified language used by coders and gamers that frequently replaced letters in words for numbers or symbols during online discussions.

“Vaccine activists have been participating in leetspeak for as long as the internet has been around,” said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “This is part of the culture of anti-vaccination activists.”

Group members have incorporated a range of coded language to mask their discussions, many of which perpetuate debunked theories about the vaccines. “Danced” or “drank beer” mean “got the vaccine.” References to “Pfizer” generally use the terms “pizza” or “Pizza King,” and Moderna is referred to as “Moana.” Users generally play around with unofficial language about dancing to create more coded language.

For example, one group member said her husband had become sick after going on a “cross country trip where we spent 2 nights with dancers,” referring to two people who had just been vaccinated.

“He believes that by being around those who have danced the glitter caused the shingles reactivation,” the group member wrote. The glitter, in this case, refers to “vaccine shedding,” a false theory among anti-vaccine activists that claims people who have been vaccinated are somehow “shedding” their vaccine onto the unvaccinated, and causing them to become sick with a litany of illnesses.

The use of coded language underscores the challenge Facebook has in containing anti-vaccine sentiment that built up for years on the social network and other digital platforms. Facebook began to crack down on vaccine misinformation in 2019 and pledged in 2020 to take swift action against Covid misinformation

Other extremist groups have been found to use coded language in an effort to avoid detection. The anti-government boogaloo movement derives much of its iconography from alternative names used to preventively skirt Facebook bans. The group’s members wear Hawaiian shirts and patches depicting igloos because some of the largest boogaloo Facebook groups changed their names to “Big Luau” and “Big Igloo” in advance of the group’s expulsion from Facebook.

Donovan said extremist groups change their names to banal or unoffensive-sounding names during increased public scrutiny in an effort to retain the audience they’ve built up.

“After Charlottesville, white supremacists were scrambling to change the names of their groups to things like Muslims for Peace. In doing so, they’re obviously participating in ban-evasion, but they’re learning to work better together,” she said, referring to the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Virginia. “There’s a network effect there where people are imagining themselves as being persecuted and having access to some secret knowledge.”