Coronavirus and Anti-Vaccine Sentiments

As governments around the world prepare to roll out vaccine programmes, they are facing an uphill battle against disinformation that could put lives at risk. Currently, YouGov polling suggests that one in five Britons are unlikely to get the vaccine.

Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have seen a growing spotlight since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and though the anti-vaccine movement is decades old, the recent news about the success of the Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines have further amplified efforts to spread vaccine misinformation.

The Role of Social Media

The infodemic that accompanied the rapid spread of COVID-19 has found a rather accommodating home on social media platforms where anyone can declare themselves an expert and filters against fake news are absent. On top of this, absentminded digital media habits have encouraged the sharing of clickbait content without the reader first mindfully considering its factuality and many online groups are particularly susceptible to this.

Professor Heidi Larson, who runs the Vaccine Confidence Project explained that when people try to navigate the overwhelming influx of information about the pandemic, they are faced with content that ranges from factual to completely outlandish. Some of the prevailing deceptions have been covered in a previous blog post but more recently, absurd accusations of a ‘plandemic’ and claims that Bill Gates is using the vaccine to microchip the population have been the main focus.

The second lockdown has further contributed to creating the ideal conditions for the spread of misinformation. Confined to our homes, it is easy to spend hours scrolling through social media and communicating online. Anti-vaxxers are exploiting fears and vulnerabilities, particularly of those who may already be concerned with the speed at which the vaccines were developed or the brand-new approach of using mRNA in vaccines. Much of the news is dominated by these two factors with little reassurance that the pace of development is not a result of taking shortcuts but greater funding.

The Impact of Vaccine Scepticism

These disingenuous narratives are not only leading to a rise in hate crimes, increasing polarisation and the violation of human rights but anti-vaccine movements are endangering the lives of others by deterring them from getting the vaccine.

Professor Stephen Evans from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine predicted that at least 70% of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity but Professor Heidi Larson’s study on vaccine confidence in the UK found that while 54% of 4000 Britons would get the vaccine, that number decreased by 6% when they were shown false information.

What’s Being Done To Address The Issue?

Social media companies have taken some steps to mitigate the impact of anti-vaccine conspiracies – Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have formed a collaboration with British charity Full Fact, the UK’s Department or Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and more to innovate a new framework to address these issues but this won’t be available until next year. It may also be delayed by a disagreement on tactics.

The British Government on the other hand has mobilised a rapid response unit to monitor fake news. They are being further supported by a counter-disinformation unit to combat misleading allegations. The Times reported that GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence are also engaged in tackling misinformation disseminated by hostile states. The government is said to be considering the use of influencers to circulate positive messages regarding the vaccine.

Greater Measures Are Necessary For a Full Recovery

Governments and social media platforms need to take greater responsibility if they want a high uptake in vaccinations. Better access to verified information, greater distribution of narratives promoting the benefits of vaccines and a clampdown on misinformation is vital to ensure that the country can start to recover from the chaos caused by COVID-19.

As Sarah Evanega, director for Cornell University’s Alliance for Science told the National Geographic, “The COVID-19 pandemic is a real dire demonstration of how misinformation has real-world and immediate consequences on public health…it really is a matter of life and death.”