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Deadly mix: Covid19, anti vaxxers and the Social Media

By Kosta Stefanov, AlphaGalileo

Petition "Against compulsory vaccination for COVID19" appeared on the Bulgarian Internet, which is spreading rapidly on the social network.

This is not the first time when the so called anti vaxxers are using the social media to spread false news about vaccines.

Facebook has a huge network of groups that spread false health information. Such is Stop Mandatory Vaccination, one of the largest health disinformation groups with more than 139,000 members.

This group shares conspiracy theories that outbreaks of preventable diseases are "scams" committed by the government and connects parents whose children have died to convince them without evidence that the vaccines are to blame.

One of the most popular conspiracy theories at the moment is that Bill Gates gave money to create Covid19 vaccine in order to implant microchips in the people who are going to take it. Why? Because with the microchip Bill Gates will command your brain like one of his computers. It may sound ridiculous but some people are buying it. According to a recent study that’s about 15% of the Americans and 12% of Brits.

Social media echo chambers—where users only hear and see information that echoes their own beliefs—further energize the anti-vaccine movement. Clusters of users with opposing views rarely interact with one another, leaving little room for constructive debate.

Over the past year, amid widespread health misinformation against vaccines and the largest outbreak of measles in decades, Facebook has taken steps to limit the size and reach of anti-vaccine content groups.

Following similar decisions by Pinterest and YouTube, Facebook announced in March that it would limit the scope of anti-vaccine content, no longer serve anti-vaccine groups and search results pages and referrals, and no longer allow users and groups to spread misinformation about vaccines, run ads or raise funds.

In September, Facebook began leaving recommendations for users looking for vaccine-related content to visit the World Health Organisation's website.

However, Facebook has not banned the anti vaccination groups themselves.

Anti vaxxers are associated with conspiracy theories, but it is a fact that many people are simply concerned about the side effects or morale of the vaccine industry.

A 2018 study by the British health trust Wellcome showed that every fifth person in the world does not believe or is not entirely convinced that vaccines are safe.

Online discussions followed by Reuters (including Facebook pages with more than 200,000 members, Twitter topics such as Children's Health Defence and YouTube videos with a total of more than 700,000 views) show significant mistrust that a hasty a vaccine created will not be tested properly.

A study by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine shows that more than one in four Britons would refuse to be vaccinated with a ready-made coronavirus vaccine, or at least still hesitate.

In the past few years, opposition to vaccinations has been discussed more frequently in the news. Concerned parents are opting to forgo vaccinations for their children for many different reasons.

This has resulted in a surge of infectious diseases that had been previously or nearly eradicated.

In the United States, fear of vaccines emerged in the 18th century. Religious figureheads often referred to them as “the devil’s work” and actively spoke against them.

In the 19th century, the movement became increasingly politically motivated as passage of laws in Britain made it mandatory for parents to vaccinate their children.

In response, anti-vaccine activists formed the Anti-Vaccination League in London, emphasising their mission to protect individual liberties that were being “invaded” by government.

These movements expanded to Britain in the 1970s and 1980s when parents increasingly refused to vaccinate their children against pertussis in response to a report that attributed 36 negative neurological reactions to the pertussis vaccine.

The Lancet quotes Vish Viswanath (Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA, USA) who points out that the general public can be split into three groups. There is a minority of staunch opponents of vaccination who are unlikely to shift their opinion. There is a larger group of people who have been persuaded of the importance of vaccines and are just as unlikely to shift their opinion. And then there are those in the middle. “These people are trying to do the right thing but they have doubts and they have questions, and they can be vulnerable to antivaccination messages”, said Viswanath. “That is where you see the damage.”

Another reason skepticism has begun to flourish over vaccinations is due to the spread of misinformation on social media.

Medical knowledge that was once held exclusively by medical professionals is now accessible to anyone and can be shared in posts that become “viral.”

According to an analysis of YouTube videos about immunisation, 32% opposed vaccination.

Perhaps more concerning, these videos had higher ratings and more views than pro-vaccine videos.

The hoaxes can now travel faster and further via social media such as WhatsApp, which has some 300 million users in India.

In April, the Wall Street Journal reported: "Dozens of schools in Mumbai have refused to allow health officials to carry out vaccinations in recent months, largely because of rumours shared on Facebook Inc's popular messaging app [WhatsApp] about the supposed dangers."

Many people tend to forget or rather just don’t know that vaccines have saved millions of lives and prevented pandemics in the last 100 years.

As Long Island pediatrician, said in her interview for American TV network: "We’ve saved millions of children’s lives because of vaccination. But we live in an age where people haven’t seen the harm and death that these diseases caused in the past," she said. "Because they haven’t lived it, they don’t understand."

Richard Pan, a pediatrician and California state senator who has championed stronger vaccine mandates, has described anti vaccine and anti-lockdown protesters as “essentially selfish” because they put other people at risk.

“One of the hallmarks of the anti-vaccine movement is this sense of selfishness and lack of concern for other people’s health,” Pan says. “They like to talk about rights and freedom. But what they really want is freedom without consequences.”

COVID-19 vaccine is some time away, but work needs to be done to counter anti-vaccine narratives. With the ease of fake news and conspiracy theories to spread online, attention needs to be on both combating COVID-19 and the spread of misinformation.

People who rely on social media for information were more likely to be misinformed about vaccines than those who rely on traditional media, according to a study of vaccine knowledge and media use by researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania.

The researchers said this study suggests that "increasing the sheer amount of pro-vaccination content in media of all types may be of value over the longer term." They said the findings also underscore the importance of decisions by Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Pinterest to reduce or block access to anti-vaccine misinformation.

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