Combatting vaccine misinformation in the age of the pandemic

By KIMBERLEY THATCHER

As news hit the nation on 9th November that there was promise of a new COVID-19 vaccine, it may have been reasonable to expect a sense of jubilation. Whilst this was certainly true for most, the socially distanced sighs of relief were accompanied by the growing sound of anti-vaxx concerns. Despite not being a new phenomenon, anti-vaccine activity has evolved with the development of social media and the increasing prevalence of misinformation online. Such inaccuracies pose a direct threat to COVID-19 response efforts and the prospect of vaccine efficacy. In order to tackle this, the UK Government has joined forces with social media giants, like Google and Facebook, to action measures that may help limit the spread of vaccine dis/misinformation.


In recent decades vaccines have come under public scrutiny from worried parents, wellbeing enthusiasts and multiple other platforms. Although some concerns have been warranted, others have been based speculative, fuelling the rise of anti-vaxx sentiments. Given the current situation, however, the decision not to immunise presents a real challenge to the restoration of international health. What was once an individual choice may now be considered a social responsibility. On 12th November, the statistics reported by the World Health Organisation (WHO) stood at almost 52 million confirmed COVID-19 cases globally, including 1.2 million deaths. Without vaccination, these alarming figures show little chance of slowing down and, as the UK and many other nations continue to battle against a second wave, the situation is becoming more precarious by the day.


Depending on the amount of COVID-19 virus in the population, experts are estimating a vaccination take-up rate of 60 to 90 per cent for herd immunity to develop. However, according to a recent UK survey of 4,000 people, only 54 per cent of those asked would ‘definitely’ have it. These statistics highlight the potential impact of anti-vaxx misinformation on the efficacy of the new vaccine. Heidi Larson, head of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, stated that: “[Misinformation] can absolutely knock the needed level of herd immunity down.” This tangible threat to international health has turned anti-vaccination activity into a matter of governmental urgency, especially when so much of it originates from sources of dis/misinformation.


The term “infodemic”, coined by WHO, describes the contagious nature of fabricated and misleading information in the public arena. There is little doubt that the role of social media in our everyday lives has helped escalate this secondary contagion. In 2019, statistics from Ofcom found the internet to be the second most popular platform for news consumption. What is more telling, however, is that their figures also acknowledge it to be a largely mistrusted source. Whereas newspapers and other traditional news platforms are regulated by external measures and include an element of fact-checking, social media is predominantly the public’s arena. This leaves few mechanisms in place to prevent personal opinions from being construed as ‘facts’. Consequently, Nicola Sturgeon’s advice that “all of us should guard against buying into conspiracy theories”, fails to provide a formal solution.


With international health resting on the public’s response to the new vaccine, there is growing necessity to implement strategies to help tackle the spread of COVID-19 vaccine dis/misinformation. Earlier this month, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Health Secretary Matt Hancock, entered discussions with social media giants to do just that. The measures agreed upon include: ensuring that no user or company directly benefits from COVID-19 vaccine mis/disinformation, that any false information is responded to efficiently and that social media platforms continue to work with public health to provide accurate information about the vaccine. These measures go alongside a response of cooperation from fact-checking charities, public health and academia.


Although these measures depict a stance of collective responsibility from social media corporations, it must be emphasised that dis/misinformation is an international problem. A global study of 100 million Facebook users showed that, although anti-vaxxers are a minority group, their interactions tend to be less isolated and more vociferous, consequently elevating the influential impact of their online presence. In accordance with these concerns, Google UK have continued to update their policies in line with public health to promote the distribution of authoritative information, whilst Twitter UK have introduced COVID dis/misinformation policies. Katy Minshall, Head of Twitter’s UK Public Policy department, commented: “[O]ur automated systems have challenged millions of accounts which were targeting discussions around COVID-19 with spammy or manipulative behaviours. We remain committed to combating misinformation about COVID-19.”


With Christmas looming and many hoping that 2021 will provide a different landscape, it is encouraging to see social media corporations standing in solidarity with public health policies. Although there are certainly questions that need to be addressed about the COVID-19 vaccine, the current findings feel like a much-needed piece of good news. Dr. Albert Bourla, Pfizer Chair and CEO, has said: “We look forward to sharing additional efficacy and safety data generated from thousands of participants in the coming weeks.” Alongside the policies already implemented by social media giants, the distribution of these answers will hopefully assist in minimising the threat of vaccine misinformation so the public can make appropriately informed decisions.


Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash

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