The spread of a chain e-mail, reportedly spotted online around the year 2000, demonstrated how easily bad actors can fearmonger around illicit substances — and how those rumors and narratives get used and re-used over the years.
Most variations on the message are presented as a story from one “Lauren Archer,” a Tennessee woman claiming to have suffered a tragedy at a local McDonald’s after celebrating her son “Kevin’s” third birthday there:
After he finished lunch, I allowed him to play in the ball pit. When he started whining later on, I asked him what was wrong, he pointed to the back of his pull-up and simply said “Mommy, it hurts.” I couldn’t find anything wrong with him at that time. I bathed him when we got home, and it was at that point when I found a welt on his left buttock. Upon investigating, it seemed as if there was something like a splinter under the welt. I made an appointment to see the doctor the next day, but soon he started vomiting and shaking, then his eyes rolled back into his head. From there, we went to the emergency room. He died later that night. It turned out that the welt on his buttock was the tip of a hypodermic needle that had broken off inside. The autopsy revealed that Kevin had died from a heroine overdose. The next week, the police removed the balls from the ball pit. There was rotten food, several hypodermic needles: some full, some used; knives, half-eaten candy, diapers, feces, and the stench of urine.
In some versions, the “needle” is infected with the HIV virus. And some iterations of the message claim the story appeared in “the October 10 1994 issue of the Houston Chronicle,” while others list the October 10 1999 issue of the “Midland Chronicle,” which does not exist. Most versions exhort readers to “forward this to all loving mothers, fathers and anyone who loves and cares for children.”
No matter the version, the story is false.
In January 2000, David Galloway, a columnist for the Houston Chronicle at the time, debunked the story in response to a reader’s letter. Galloway reported that there was no mention of the name “Kevin Archer” in the newspaper’s archives, either in October 1994 or any other date.
“That’s one of the favorite techniques of hoax writers. They attach the name of a real publication and a specific date (far enough in the past to make verification difficult), and it makes their garbage seem much more authentic,” he pointed out.
“But some smart people like Dianna know that just because a warning on the Internet cites a reputable source, that doesn’t mean the reputable source ever reported what’s being claimed. No, the Chronicle never reported on needles in the McDonald’s playground. It didn’t happen.”
Fragments of this extremely tenacious disinformation campaign have been reappropriated since 2020 in order to spread conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines:
Reuters has already addressed claims that an Australian COVID-19 vaccine candidate infected trial participants with HIV (here).
The development of the vaccine by the University of Queensland and biotech firm CSL was found to interfere with HIV tests, but routine follow ups confirmed there was no HIV present, according to CSL (here).
The trial was ultimately halted, and the vaccine is not in use (here).
There is also no evidence of immunodeficiency being related to COVID-19 vaccines.
These narratives are still just as false as they ever were — which is to say, completely.
Update 7/28/2022, 12:40 a.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag