Updated: Dec 27, 2020
The news of success in both Pfizer, Moderna and Oxford’s Covid-19 drug trials has been welcomed by people across the globe, with Governments placing orders of millions in preparation for the biggest vaccination drive in modern history. In anticipation of this drive however, governments now face the profoundly difficult task of convincing those opposed to vaccinations that they are safe to receive. More broadly, they must tackle the Covid ‘infodemic’.
Over the course of the pandemic, social media sites have been active outlets for conspiracy theorists, with their claims ranging from the virus being spread by 5G, to face-masks being implanted with tracking chips. As ludicrous as these ideas may sound, vaccine misinformation has tangible and potentially deadly consequences. In August 2020, Ipsos-MORI reported that only 53% of the population would be certain or very likely to get a vaccine against coronavirus. The same study found that 27% of those who claim to get the majority of information on COVID-19 from WhatsApp said they were unlikely or definitely wouldn’t get a vaccine.
In 2019, the United Kingdom lost its Measles eradication status, with Dr Kate O’Brien, of the World Health Organisation’s immunisation department attributing this to increased misinformation regarding vaccinations. Moreover, this certainly isn’t just a problem specific to the UK - a 2019 world survey found that 22% of western Europeans believe vaccines to be unsafe.
In May 2020, The World Health Assembly passed a resolution - WHA73.1 - which recognised tackling covid misinformation as a crucial component to tackling the pandemic. The UK currently does not have any legislation that regulates the validity of news posted on online platforms, even though several pieces of legislation have been proposed (most recently by the Labour Party). Earlier this month, Facebook, Twitter and Google agreed with the UK Government to the principle that social media giants ‘should not profit from or promote COVID-19 anti-vaccine disinformation’ and committed to responding ‘flagged content more swiftly, and to work with authorities to promote scientifically accurate messages’.
However, emphasis on profit, alongside an absence of legislative authority, does bring into doubt whether such an agreement carries enough weight to disrupt vaccine misinformation. Equally, placing the fate of public health in the hands of private corporations with a history of political interference is a dubious decision. Meanwhile, even if the promotion of misinformation by paid interest groups were to be prevented, this does nothing to stop the circulation of conspiracy theories by groups or individuals. Selective exposure theories suggest that individuals tend to prefer information that reinforces their existing views. Hence, proponents of such views are unlikely to be deterred.
Censorship laws are certainly not the answer; free speech is intrinsic to the health of liberal democracies. Rather, we must look critically at our entire political and civic cultures. Scholars and commentators often refer to our current era as one of ‘Post-Truth Politics’ - an epoch in which ‘objective facts’ have been publicly buried. Openness and transparency within government and politics have been replaced by deception, misinformation and anti-rational sentiments. In the era of ‘Fake News’, conspiracy theory and populism, the validity of statements is unimportant. Rather, power is won on the basis of who can arouse the most emotive and anti-rational sentiment with their dangerous discourses. ‘Post Truths’ do not merely manifest through online and social media. They infect the very heart of the political process, with election campaigns not won on the basis of ‘basic democratic norms of open and plural communication among citizens’, but ‘political mendacity, nonsense, buffoonery and silence’. Consequently, the effort to discourage misinformation and so called ‘alternative truths’ in post-truth democracies is an incredibly difficult task.
So how are we to prevent misinformation? One essential recommendation is a government advertising campaign to accompany the vaccine rollout. Such a campaign must make clear the tangible and dangerous link between misinformation, fake news and public health outcomes. Whilst making clear that vaccinations are not to be made compulsory, governments must articulate just how important it is for their citizens to acquire herd immunity. Just as the ‘Stay Safe, Stay Home’ slogan has become etched into the collective mind of the British Public, vaccinations must be given the PR treatment and marketed to a hesitant electorate.
Moreover, greater attention must be paid to understand why certain individuals may be opposed or hesitant to take vaccinations. Rather than dismissing ‘anti-vaxxers’ as ‘nuts’, Government researchers must seek to understand the exact concerns that individuals have over taking vaccinations. Hesitation towards vaccinations is a spectrum, right from opposition to hesitancy and to apathy, so no one rhetoric can provide the answer to dispelling myths. Hence, public health agencies must work to communicate transparently exactly how the vaccine works, what the dangers are and dispel the myths currently circulating.
Finally, in the long term, as we take lessons from Covid, we must act preemptively in educating our young people how to use social media critically and effectively. Schools must work to provide their leavers with media literacy and critical thinking skills, so that they may scrutinise unreliable sources and differentiate between legitimate and illegitimate information. As a young person born into the social media age, I can say with confidence that children are woefully underprepared to deal with the difficulties and complexities that social media poses. Just as we are taught to protect ourselves against online predators, by scrutinising unfamiliar profiles and keeping our accounts private, young people must be taught to scrutinise the information they are unwillingly exposed to and question whether it comes from a reliable source.
However, as important as these interventions are, if vaccine misinformation is just one symptom of a political culture of mistrust and opacity, the time for damage control is likely far gone.