Pandemic: a shot in the arm for anti-vaccine movement
Fighting misinformation
Published: Apr 25, 2021 06:23 PM
Anti-vaccine campaigners once confined to relatively obscure groups have exploited the coronavirus pandemic to reach a wider audience online, feeding on public fears to sow doubt about the drugs now available.

A rally against health measures to combat the coronavirus, wearing masks and vaccines, by members of the party The Patriots in Lyon, France, on April 17 Photo: AFP

A rally against health measures to combat the coronavirus, wearing masks and vaccines, by members of the party The Patriots in Lyon, France, on April 17 Photo: AFP

But while the "anti-vax" camp has long understood the importance of the information battle, says science historian Laurent-Henri Vignaud, the health authorities are often a step behind. The problem, says Vignaud, coauthor of Anti-vax, a 2019 book on the movement, is that health officials are "starting from the principle that vaccination is useful" to the population - the very premise attacked by anti-vaxers.

The modern anti-vax movement took off on the back of a long-discredited medical 1998 study published in The Lancet suggesting a link between the MMR vaccine (measles, mumps and rubella) and autism.

It got a foothold in special-interest groups such as some religious communities and fringe environmental campaigners. Then, in 2020, interest in their theories exploded.

Facebook groups peddling false information on the vaccines have attracted masses of followers, according to a BBC study published at the end of March, which studied Brazil, France, India, Kenya, Mexico, Tanzania and Ukraine. 

In France, for example, pages sharing anti-vaccine content received nearly four million likes - up 27 percent. 

Spreading in from the fringe 

Anti-vax theories are no longer limited to a handful of fringe groups.

You can find them online among France's yellow vest campaigners, among libertarian groups and New Age proselytizers, according to First Draft, a campaign group that specializes in exposing misinformation.

The movement has created strange bedfellows, including a variety of conspiracy theorists who have incorporated the anti-vax narrative into their world view to stay topical, says First Draft researcher Seb Cubbon. And their message appeals to both far-left and far-right groups, says sociologist Florian Cafiero of France's CNRS. But in a 2020 study First Draft warned that "increasing rates of vaccine skepticism may not only jeopardize the effectiveness of a potential COVID-19 vaccine, but that of vaccines in general, and even levels of trust in institutions connected to science and medicine."

Locked down and online 

A handful of high-profile campaigners have pushed the anti-vax message online.

Researchers at the University of Zurich studying thousands of English-language tweets found that while the anti-vax message was being pushed by a small fraction of Twitter users, they were boosted by a strong level of interaction. Some 65 percent of online Anti-vax content in February and March could be attributed to 12 "extremely influential creators," said the US-based Center for Countering Digital Hate. One of them is the lawyer Robert F. Kennedy Jr, nephew of the former president.

Millions of people around the world have been forced to submit to lockdowns at some point in the past year, and many of them have gone online looking for answers to the crisis that has disrupted so many lives. But the initial lack of hard facts about the new threat, coupled with failures of communication by some official channels - such as mixed messages about the effectiveness of masks - was fertile ground for anti-vaxers. 

And the fact that many ordinary people do not have scientific training made them vulnerable to their disinformation. 

Even scientific successes, such as the swift development of vaccines using innovative methods, became a source of suspicion for the skeptics.

Once health workers started recording stronger-than-expected side effects for the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson jabs. It only fed into conspiracy theory narratives.

The online misinformation - sometimes in well-produced packages such as the documentary Hold-Up in France which alleged a "global manipulation" over the pandemic - garnered millions of views.

Its allegations have been picked up and amplified by politicians, celebrities and online influencers.

Claims have spread online by anonymous "doctors" that the vaccines are ineffective or even in some cases deadly. Fake videos have appeared purporting to show people who died after being injected with a dose of vaccine. Many of these claims have been examined and debunked by AFP's fact-checking team, which has written 700 articles fact-checking the claims about vaccines.

The major online players - Facebook, Twitter and You Tube - have stepped up efforts to track down and remove disinformation on their platforms, while promoting information from the health authorities. But the anti-vax message is still all over the internet.

Battling the 'infodemic' 

In September, the World Health Organization and several UN organisations expressed concern about the flood of misinformation about the pandemic, now referred to as an "infodemic."

"An infodemic is about much more than misinformation or disinformation," said Christine Czerniak, leading the WHO's fight against pandemic misinformation.

"It's also about an overwhelming amount of information - and information gaps and confusing messaging - that all together make it difficult for everyone to know what to do."
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