Ana Hansch explores the rise of misinformation and conspiracy during the vaccine rollout.
Whoever said ‘ignorance is bliss’ clearly didn’t live through a global pandemic. At least, they certainly didn’t live through a pandemic during the Trumpian era of ‘fake news’.
For the last 11 months, everyone has been holding their breath, waiting for a solution. As the UK has succeeded in delivering a first round of vaccinations to more than a quarter of the population, it feels as though the end is in sight. Despite this, and despite the many lives lost, some people would like to continue holding their breath, seemingly in an attempt to suffocate both themselves and the rest of the country. The scepticism around vaccines has festered during the course of the pandemic and has thrusted the anti-vaccination movement into the forefront of public discourse.
For the last eleven months, everyone has been holding their breath, waiting for a solution.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I’m not a total cynic, and I completely understand an initial hesitancy towards the vaccine. Hesitancy is common for every new vaccine and is simply evidence of personal risk assessment from individuals, and relies on things like complacency, confidence, and convenience. For example, many people, rightfully questioned the speed at which the vaccine was pushed through, when others have taken years to be approved and mass produced. These questions, however, could be easily answered with a small bit of research and a hint of critical thinking. Once again, however, critical thinking has not proven to be the strong suit of the UK’s general population.
This hesitation finds its roots in two main problems. The first is a lack of perceived threat. When someone breaks lockdown or doesn’t socially distance, there doesn’t seem to be an immediate consequence. Even if they do catch the virus, many only feel mild symptoms, or don’t feel ill at all. Vaccines, then, seem an unnecessary, and perhaps dangerous, risk to take to solve a non-existent problem. Whether that loose logic has to do with a lack of empathy or a lack of education on how pandemics work, it’s unclear. The second, and perhaps more dangerous problem is the spread of misinformation on social media platforms. As with most problems in the 21st century, the anti-vaccine movement and its success can be largely attributed to social media.
As with most problems in the 21st century, the anti-vaccine movement and its success can be largely attributed to social media.
A survey generated by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that those who found their information about the pandemic from social media were more likely to be sceptical about the vaccine. No surprise there. The Oxford Coronavirus Explanations, Attitudes, and Narratives Survey (OCEANS) also found no socio-demographic link to the hesitancy. This problem is not fuelled by cynics, but instead comes from a more general, inherent distrust of authority figures, such as government officials or medical professionals. This can explain why OCEANS also found a direct link between vaccine hesitancy and belief in conspiracy theories.
I’m sure this comes as no shock to anyone. In the last few years, the giants of the social media world are being increasingly held accountable for their knowing contribution to the spread of misinformation online, and governments are starting to get involved in tackling the ‘fake news’ crisis. Despite this, social media accounts run by anti-vaxxers have gained at least 7.8 million followers since 2019, and almost 31 million people are a part of anti-vax groups of Facebook, along with another 17 million on YouTube.
More sinister than user-run accounts and groups, however, are the anti-vaccination advertisements that have been running on sites like Facebook in the past months. With an audience of at least 31 million people, Facebook has seized the opportunity to sell advertising spots that can target anti-vaccine accounts. Catchy headings and clickbait on these accounts lead users to sites that promote misinformation or advocate alternative health products. Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms have continued to boast their commitment to keeping their platforms free of ‘fake news’, and even disbanded high profile posts, such as those from Donald Trump. Despite this, a report from the CCHD found that only one in 20 posts containing misinformation were brought down.
Catchy headings and clickbait on these accounts lead users to sites that promote misinformation or advocate alternative health products.
So, what does this mean for the pandemic? Luckily, around 70 per cent of people in the UK are firmly pro-vaccine and will be lining up with the rest of the sane population to get their jab. But looking at the hesitancy around the COVID-19 vaccine is just the tip of the iceberg. The past year has given medical groups like the CCDH and OCEANS the opportunity to more thoroughly study the detrimental impact of social media, and the results are worrying. The staggering numbers on Facebook show just how deeply not only anti-vaccination sentiment runs, but also how acute the distrust in government systems has become.
Ignorance, when it comes to pandemics, is not bliss, but rather fuel on the raging dumpster fire of the last 11 months.