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Deceptive videos link young athlete deaths to COVID shots

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A Sept. 28, 2013 football game centered the memory of the LaPorte, Ind., player Jake West, who collapsed on a practice field and died earlier in the week. His story has since been woven into vaccine misinformation videos. Here's a video of his real story, from The Times of Northwest Indiana.

Jake West was a seemingly healthy 17-year-old when he collapsed during high school football practice in Indiana and died of sudden cardiac arrest. A video widely shared online falsely suggests COVID-19 vaccination is to blame, weaving headlines about him into a rapid-fire compilation of news coverage about athletes collapsing.

The vaccine played no role in West’s death — he died from an undiagnosed heart condition in 2013, seven years before the pandemic began.

The video is just one example of many similar compilations circulating on the internet that use deceptive tactics to link vaccines to a supposed wave of deaths and illness among the healthiest people, often athletes, a claim for which medical experts say there is no supporting evidence.

The clips inundate viewers with a barrage of stories and headlines delivered without context, some translated from other languages and offering few details people can check on their own.

They are highly effective at spreading misinformation using a strategy that sows doubt and bypasses critical analysis, capitalizing on emotion, according to Norbert Schwarz, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Southern California.

“It’s designed to foster that feeling that the vaccines may be risky,” Schwarz said. “You’re doing that with material that seems real, because it is real. All of these events actually happened, they just have nothing to do with the vaccines.”

The nearly four-minute montage that included West’s story originated on “The HighWire,” an online talk show hosted by Del Bigtree that is popular among the anti-vaccine community, and gradually became magnified via social media.

Virus Outbreak Athlete Videos Misinformation

Julie West poses for a portrait at the Play For Jake Foundation, named after her 17-year-old son who died in 2013, of sudden cardiac arrest, Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in La Porte, Ind. His death, well before the pandemic, has not stopped news coverage of his collapse from being misappropriated online in a widely shared video designed to cast doubt on COVID-19 vaccination.

It takes the viewer through more than 50 cases of medical emergencies in rapid succession while eerie music plays and a beating heart pulses in the background, ending with somber images of medics and teammates rushing to fallen athletes.

For West’s family members, who have worked to raise awareness about sudden cardiac arrest through their Play for Jake Foundation, seeing his story co-opted in the service of spreading anti-vaccine misinformation has been distressing. His mother, Julie West, questioned whether those behind the videos ever considered the feelings of parents.

“My tragedy of losing my son is always upsetting, and to think that somebody would use that for their gain is very upsetting,” she said. “It’s mind-boggling to me that there are people out there like that that want to spread or have their own agenda.”

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