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While most of the nation allowed themselves to enjoy a much-needed moment of optimism about the promising results of a new coronavirus vaccine, anti-vaxxers immediately seized the opportunity to discredit it. When the story broke “Bill Gates” (a popular target for conspiracy theories) began trending on Twitter. Last night, “thalidomide” was also trending as thousands of people shared scare stories about the morning sickness drug that ended up causing birth deformities in the 1950s and 1960s. “They got it wrong then so how can we be sure?” – or so the mantra goes.
It is very easy to sneer but people who express scepticism about the safety of a potential coronavirus vaccine do so because they don’t know any better. And as we move towards the roll out of the vaccine, the spread of misinformation is bound to intensify.
According to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, social media accounts held by so-called antivaxxers have increased their following by at least 7.8 million people since 2019. A survey released alongside their report found that around one in six British people were unlikely to agree to being vaccinated.
Anti-vaxxers thrive through the word-of-mouth spread of misinformation both in the community and online. The World Health Organisation has warned of an “infodemic” of false information about COVID-19 spreading online. It’s not just individual conspiracy theorists driving this, there is serious funding behind the anti-vaccination campaign.
A study in the journal Vaccine has found that the majority of Facebook adverts spreading misinformation about vaccines were funded by two organizations run by well-known anti-vaccination activists Robert F. Kennedy Jr (great nephew of the famous US President) and Larry Cook. Then, of course, we have celebrities like Ian Brown and Van Morrison with their millions of fans muddying the waters.
Some elements of the media are already irresponsibly platforming anti-vaxx celebrities without sufficient critical questioning or riposte. Former Emmerdale actress Linda Lusardi has spoken on Good Morning Britain about her serious doubts about the new Covid-19 vaccine. Why are we lending credibility and status to the ill-informed opinions of vapid celebrities, especially when they have such potentially damaging consequences for public health and public trust?
Countering this should not just be left to the medical community. The government must step in to reassure people and fight back against the distortion of the facts. The government is packed with Vote Leave campaigners who know how to boil down complicated issues into something easily digestible and convincing. If there was ever a time to deploy this skill, it is now. The government must launch a full-scale public campaign to ensure the British people have the information they need to feel secure and get themselves vaccinated.
It is easy to ridicule anti-vaxxers but the problem does not stop at active conspiracy theorists and tinfoil-hat-wearing lunatics. There are many more, very reasonable, people who have concerns and lack the information needed to alleviate them. There are perfectly intelligent and rational people who ask questions such as “how can we be sure it’s safe?” and “how do we know the long-term effects?” Changing the mind of committed anti-vaxxers is difficult but not impossible, but the “vaccine hesitant” are ripe for turning.
Anti-vaccination propaganda spreads because of our inherent cognitive biases. We humans are no good at processing complex information and emotionally loaded risks. Instead we rely on shortcuts in how we perceive information. Confirmation bias leads us to only accept facts that fit our existing beliefs.
Explanatory depth bias, on the other hand, leads us to believe we know more about a subject than we do. And causal illusions encourage us to see cause and effect where there is none (like getting an MMR shot coinciding with the early signs of autism). This type of bias is another factor at play that cannot be ignored.
In order to effectively combat misinformation and prevent it from going viral, the government will first have to know its enemy. Deniers of science use common techniques that are effective in raising doubts among people who would not consider themselves to be conspiracy theorists. They simply have knowledge gaps and natural doubts that go un-remedied.
For example, anti-vaxxers demand a 100% guarantee of safety, but nothing is 100% safe and despite this the vaccination is certainly safer than contracting Covid-19. They cherry pick information from studies they don’t understand and use it to further their agenda without putting it into context and without acknowledging the scientific consensus on vaccination. This can and must be fought against.
Conspiracy theorists have great stories to tell. Anecdotal evidence is powerful (even when it’s fake news). Anti-vaxxers are no exception and they target people who are uncertain and aggravate their doubts. They are fully armed with distorted facts and misinformation which often sound compelling to the layman. Now is not the time to dismiss people and simply tell them not to worry. Now is the time to directly address people’s concerns and take them seriously.
A government campaign must call out distortions in the science and emphasise the scientific consensus and it should use confirmation bias to achieve its aims. The term “herd immunity” is now commonly known amongst the public and can be exploited. The Covid-19 vaccine will protect both the vaccinated individual and the community at large by building up herd immunity. This should be easy to communicate and could even inspire yet another trademark three word slogan: “Get vaccinated, protect your community, beat the virus”.
In short, the potential negative impact that Covid-19 has on us as individuals and a society should be emphasised and the positive effect of herd immunity created by mass vaccination must be championed.
The government should be advertising on TV, social media and the mainstream media trying to persuade people. It should launch a poster campaign we can see everywhere we go. You could even put ads on the side of a bus. There should be a social media team working around the clock to launch a counter attack against anti-vaxx propaganda spreading across all platforms.
Fundamentally, the government must have a coherent narrative in which to bind its strategy. Physicians and public health scientists work in statistics, but narratives and stories are how people make sense of the world. The government should tell the stories of people who were successfully vaccinated and have got their lives back.
It’s easy to sneer whilst taking refuge in what Christopher Hitchens called the “false security of consensus”. But most people who are pro-vaccination and scornful of the anti-vaxx movement don’t actually have the depth of knowledge to explain their position in detail either; they simply accept the consensus and trust science.
Vaccines are a miracle of science that have saved millions of lives. They are the reason why we don’t suffer epidemics of measles, polio and smallpox. Nevertheless, not everyone fully embraces this fact and in a year in which extraordinary things have happened, many old certainties have been shaken and undermined.
Amid this crisis, we need the state to act as a consistent source of stability and clarity. In that spirit, it is time for the government to intervene in the debate to facilitate the success of the impending mass vaccination programme.