A new report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has lambasted social media companies for allowing the anti-vaccine movement to remain on their platforms. The report's authors noted that social media accounts held by so-called anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7·8 million people since 2019. “The decision to continue hosting known misinformation content and actors left online anti-vaxxers ready to pounce on the opportunity presented by coronavirus”, stated the report. The CCDH warned that the growing anti-vaccine movement could undermine the roll-out of any future vaccine against COVID-19.
The report noted that 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook, with 17 million people subscribing to similar accounts on YouTube. The CCDH calculated that the anti-vaccine movement could realise US$1 billion in annual revenues for social media firms. As much as $989 million could accrue to Facebook and Instagram alone, largely from advertising targeting the 38·7 million followers of anti-vaccine accounts. Huge sums indeed, but it is worth noting that, in 2019, Facebook generated revenue of $70·7 billion.
The UK Medicines and healthcare products regulatory Agency (MHRA) has been warning for some time against anti-vaccine rhetoric that it fears could derail the coronavirus vaccination programme – which would be larger than any adult campaign carried out to date.
Vaccination opposition isn’t a new concept. As long as there have been vaccines, there have been people who objected to them.
Refusing vaccines started back in the early 1800s when the smallpox vaccine started being used in large numbers. The idea of injecting someone with a part of a cowpox blister to protect them from smallpox faced a lot of criticism. The criticism was based on sanitary, religious, and political objections. Some clergy believed that the vaccine went against their religion.
Anti-vaxxers believe the coronavirus pandemic presents them with a historic opportunity for widening vaccine distrust, new report has warned. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate’s (CCDH) report is based on evidence it gathered at a private conference, which was attended by some of the world’s leading vaccine sceptics.
At this event, anti-vaxxers suggested they could reach wider audiences than ever before and could sow long-lasting distrust against the need for vaccinations.
The group also discussed the three-pronged master narrative they wished to spread, according to the CCDH. This involves the baseless claims that the coronavirus is not dangerous but that vaccines are, as well as the suggestion that experts cannot be trusted.
The report also noted that vaccine sceptics were training their activist base in the hope of gaining more recruits.
More worrying still, the Center for Countering Digital Hate estimates such beliefs already have a following of 5.4 million people in the UK.
Tactics outlined by those involved in the misinformation campaign include the use of private Facebook groups to train members in identifying friends and family members who are "vaccine hesitant" - and persuading them to the anti-vaxx cause.
Despite a government pledge earlier this year to tackle the issue on social media, only one of 27 major UK anti-vaccination accounts has been removed.
It has also been revealed anti-vaxx groups are targeting ethnic minority people - who are at greater risk of Covid - to dissuade them from taking the vaccine.
Despite the Covid vaccines being reported as safe, a recent YouGov survey found that 21% of adults in Britain are unlikely to take a vaccine, and a further 12% are unsure. That means a third of the country aren’t confident they will take the vaccine – though reasons vary from a minority of anti-vaxxers, to a larger group of people who are hesitant and want to wait and see if it’s safe, or think they are too low risk to need it.
The situation in USA is even more dire.
“Only 59% of respondents said they would get a vaccine and only 53% would give it to their children,” says Scott Ratzan, lecturer at the New York based CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.
He attributes much of the negativity in his surveys around a coronavirus vaccine to a small but incredibly vocal movement. “The anti-vaccination movement is going to make Covid-19 more difficult to get under control,” he told The BMJ.
In 2019, the World Health Organization named vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 threats to global health. The call was made amid numerous measles outbreaks, when global uptake rates for the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine slipped to 85%, down from the required target of 95%.
In the new Covid-19 world, confusion and fear has only exacerbated the situation. Conspiracy theories and misinformation have circulated widely, from links with 5G masts to claims that Bill Gates is using vaccine developments to microchip the population. The week of 24 April—world immunization week—a false story circulated that one of the first volunteers in the Oxford University Covid-19 vaccine clinical trial had died from complications.
In Eastern Europe Russian disinformation makes life much harder for Health Officials trying to persuade the people to take the vaccine. Recently Russian trolls used successfully the news that 23 old Norwegians have died after being vaccinated for Covid-19. Authorities in Bulgaria, Slovakia, Czech Republic and Hungary didn’t try to explain that all 23 were very old and sick people who had many underlying conditions and they actually have died not because of the vaccine.
The UK public tend to have a negative view of anti-vaxxers, although a notable minority have a favourable perception of people who would refuse a coronavirus vaccine, a new study by London’s King’s College has found.
A third of Britons (33%) think people who discourage the public from getting vaccinated are selfish, and four in 10 (41%) think they are stupid – compared with 5% who think they are trying to help others and 3% who think they are smart. One in six (17%) go as far as saying they think anti-vax campaigners are bad people.
While the public hold similarly negative views of people who would turn down a coronavirus vaccine, one in eight (13%) say they respect such individuals.
The findings come from new research by King’s College London and Ipsos MORI, based on 2,244 interviews with UK residents aged 16-75, carried out online between 20 and 24 November last year.
Countering bottom-up, grassroots-driven propaganda is a significant challenge for anyone who wants the vaccination effort to succeed and the pandemic to end. Since much of it plays out on social media, it’s often seen as a social-media problem.
Tech platforms continued their newfound commitment to countering health misinformation this year, as Covid-19 spread around the world. However, the results have been mixed.
The real challenge lies in countering anti-vaccine narratives with accurate information that can help instil confidence. Health agencies and tech platforms must partner with religious and civil-society groups that are trusted by targeted communities, giving them resources and funding and helping them reach their audience.
Avoiding confusion and misimpressions about vaccines from the beginning is of the greatest importance.
When it comes to a Covid-19, it’s not hard to see how conspiratorial beliefs could start to take hold. Over the past year, people have claimed that Covid-19 is spread by the 5G mobile network, that the disease has been created by the Chinese or the American governments as a bioweapon and that the pharmaceutical industry created the virus to boost drug sales.
Now, scientists believe they could have come up with an effective intervention to help positively change people’s attitudes. Rather than focusing on reiterating scientific evidence, a group from the University of Illinois found they could moderate beliefs by reminding people of the harms that vaccine refusal can have. The findings have been published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Researchers conducted a new study designed to test out the effectiveness of one potential intervention aimed at changing people’s anti-vaccination attitudes: highlighting factual information about the dangers of communicable diseases. After recruiting 315 volunteers, the researchers used questionnaires to probe their views on a variety of divisive subjects, including vaccination.
Participants were then randomly split into three groups that received different study conditions. One group was provided with scientific literature that refuted common vaccination myths. The second, a so-called “disease risk group,” was given various materials highlighting the risks associated with three vaccine-preventable diseases: measles, mumps and rubella. These included stories from parents whose children had suffered such diseases, images of infants with the infections and information regarding the potential consequences of failing to vaccinate. The final group was a control that was given unrelated reading material.
At the end of the study, participants’ attitudes were reassessed to see whether the intention to vaccinate their children had changed. Encouragingly, the researchers report, they found that the second intervention successfully changed people’s vaccination attitudes in a positive manner; even those with the strongest anti-vaccination beliefs could be countered with this technique.
In England, dips in vaccinations have more to do with missed appointments than vaccine disinformation, so health authorities are opting not to fight anti-vaxxers head-on.
Social networks have also started to attempt to push back against anti-vaccination groups. Facebook said it would no longer let anti-vaccination organisations buy ads or recommendation, stopping groups such as the National Vaccine Information Centre from pushing misinformation beyond their direct followers.
Facebook also said it would reduce the ranking of groups and pages that spread vaccine misinformation in News Feed and Search, would remove fundraising tools for such pages, and was “exploring ways to share educational information about vaccines when people come across misinformation on this topic.”
Instagram will also stop showing health misinformation in its Explore page, YouTube has demonetised videos showing anti-vaxxer views, and GoFundMe has taken down related fundraising campaigns. Twitter has yet to take similar action, with co-founder Jack Dorsey appearing on a podcast run by a host with anti-vaccination beliefs.
Whether those limited moves by social networks make a difference remains to be seen.
By Kosta Stefanov, AlphaGalileo