Fact check: False claim German government said investigating vaccines is bad for democracy

The claim: The German government said investigating COVID-19 vaccines would be dangerous for democracy

A Jan. 18 Instagram post (direct link, archive link) shares a screenshot of an apparent news headline.

“German Gov’t Claims Investigating Covid Vaccines Would Be ‘Dangerous For Democracy,’” reads the headline.

The screenshot shows a Jan. 5 article from News Punch, a website USA TODAY has frequently flagged for spreading misinformation.

The post was liked more than 3,000 times in two days.

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Our rating: False

The article the headline came from is built around an incorrect translation of a German-language interview. A medical ethicist, who is not a government official, was discussing the danger posed by people’s unresolved anger over the losses experienced during the pandemic. She wasn't talking about COVID-19 vaccines.

Interview touches on loss during pandemic

The claim twists the words of Alena Buyx, the head of the German Ethics Council, an independent group of medical ethicists, according to two German-language experts who reviewed her comments and the purported translation of them.

Buyx spoke of the danger of unresolved anger over losses during the COVID-19 pandemic in a Jan. 1 article (updated Jan. 4) in the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit, according to Dietram A. Scheufele, a life sciences communication professor at the University of Wisconsin. Scheufele’s research and writing has included a look at COVID-19 communication by the German government.

Scheufele translated Buyx's comments like this:

“The desire to assign blame often starts with tangible losses. And that’s both understandable and incredibly toxic. It impacts polarization in our society in fundamental ways. And it’s a danger to society. Because people who hold on to unresolved anger are demonstrably more likely to become violent and embrace more extreme politics.”

Beverly Weber, professor of German studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, provided a very similar interpretation of the comments. Both noted that the losses referred to included the loss of lives. Weber said a Google Translate version of the article is fairly accurate as well.

The News Punch post presented Buyx’s comments as saying that investigating the response to the COVID-19 pandemic would be “dangerous to democracy.”

Weber said that translation is completely off the mark.

“I can't see how anybody with even a basic understanding of German would come to the conclusion that she is suggesting that investigations of the vaccine would endanger democracy,” Weber said. “She's not talking about investigations of vaccines anywhere in the article, although she does talk about criticisms of vaccines, about how and why decisions were taken to mandate vaccines and how the language of a strictly divided society overgeneralizes how people dealt with their differences.”

Regardless of meaning, the claim and the headline also present Buyx’s comments as representing the German government. The ethics council she has headed since 2020 is an independent advisory body of ethicists, according to its website. It is not a governmental agency.

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News Punch has been flagged for sharing misinformation multiple times by USA TODAY for articles with no basis in fact. Recently, it has been debunked for claims that Bill Gates tweeted about vaccines in the food supply, that the World Economic Forum announced a "one world religion" and that DuckDuckGo’s search engine would purge independent media.

USA TODAY reached out to the social media user who shared the claim for comment.

Lead Stories also debunked the claim.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: German official called unresolved pandemic anger dangerous