The dangers of anti-vax conspiracies

Dec 6, 2020 | Internet Safety, Misinformation, social network, tech ethics

In the last month, three different Covid-19 vaccines have passed their first round of testing and been prepared for global use: Pfizer’s, Moderna’s and AstraZeneca’s. But, no sooner has the news been announced, than dangerous anti-vax conspiracies began to multiply online.

Some circulate a ‘Great Reset’ theory which suggests that the pandemic was planned by global elites as a way to restart the economy. Others believe that AstraZeneca’s vaccine contains aborted fetal tissue and will change DNA. Still more believe that the pandemic was orchestrated by Bill Gates as part of a sinister strategy to implant chips into the brains of the world’s population.

Using the huge reach of social media, conspiracy theorists have garnered vast followings and impacted the numbers of those willing to take up a vaccination when offered. Immediately after the announcement of Pfizer’s vaccine only 2/3 of Britons said they were very likely or fairly likely to take it up, though this was not all due to anti-vaxxer sentiment. In the wake of the multiplication of anti-vax conspiracies, Facebook and YouTube have begun to remove false claims about the vaccine on their platforms in order to prevent “imminent physical harm”.

Anti-vax conspiracies are not new

Anti-vax conspiracies, from Polio in the 50s to, perhaps most famously, MMR in the early 2000s, have existed long before social media. From links to autism, to worries about side effects, concern has always accompanied new vaccines. In the 50s when the Polio vaccine was first released, children were being vaccinated in their thousands, but teenagers, who were also vulnerable, were reluctant to come forward. In an attempt to raise awareness and turnout in this age group, Elvis Presley agreed to receive his Polio vaccine in front of the media. Similarly, Presidents Obama, Bush Jr and Clinton have all recently agreed to get the Covid 19 vaccine live on TV, to reassure the American public it is safe to take.

How social media has changed the game

Despite the historical existence of concerns around vaccines, the reach of social media has been responsible for a rapid and vast geographic spread of anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories. The Centre for Countering Digital Hate has charted an increase of 8 million in followers of anti-vax conspiracies (measured by anti-vax account followers), in the last 12 months alone. As we already know, from the impact of misinformation around the 2020 US election, many more people now turn to unregulated social media rather than traditional news media to get their news, leaving them vulnerable to the spread of unchecked conspiracies online.

Are social media companies doing enough?

Given the huge impact social media companies have on perceptions of truth, many have called for more stringent rules on misinformation, especially around healthcare. Facebook and YouTube have partly answered the call; Facebook say that they are accelerating attempts to remove fake news from their site. Specifically, they will remove posts related to vaccine ingredients, safety, effectiveness and side-effects which have been debunked, as well as the theory that these vaccines contain a microchip to monitor recipients. YouTube has also taken a stance in removing misleading Covid 19 anti-vax conspiracies from their platform. However, Instagram, SnapChat and others with huge global reach, have yet to take action, and are struggling to keep up with the sheer number of conspiracy posts made daily.

Anti-vax conspiracies are spawned by fear. In 2020, the global pandemic has meant that anxiety has multiplied, leaving adults and teens turning more and more to social media for information and reassurance. The rise in dangerous anti-vax conspiracies was easily predictable, but it’s more important than ever before to assert scientific facts in the fight against misinformation. In the midst of a global health emergency, social media companies must escalate their attempts to halt the spread of dangerous lies online.