Technology Brief #30
Still No Vaccine For Misinformation: Anti-Vax Conspiracies Spread Online Despite New Policies
By Scout Burchill
December 23, 2020
As vaccines for the COVID-19 virus begin to be distributed across the country, social media platforms have pledged to combat anti-vaccination misinformation. Deceptive and unfounded conspiracy theories purporting a host of wide-ranging claims about the Covid vaccine have been spreading on social media for a number of months, but now that the vaccine is finally out, these claims are multiplying. These conspiracies allege, among other things, that the vaccine will microchip and track individuals, that it will cause genetic damage or cancer, that many people are experiencing adverse reactions to it, and that it has links to the Chinese Communist Party.
In response to this contagion of misinformation, social media sites have announced new policies to target debunked vaccine information. On December 3rd, Facebook announced that it would remove false claims about Covid vaccines that could result in “imminent physical harm.” Twitter followed suit by implementing a similar policy on December 16th, targeting the worst offenses and only labeling those that could mislead users. In spite of these more aggressive tactics, vaccine misinformation still runs rampant on these platforms. Among the worst culprits of this misinformation are the Children’s Health Defense, founded by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and WorldTruth.TV. The National Vaccine Information Center is another leading source of misinformation and fear mongering that is widely shared on social media sites.
Anti vaccine (Anti-vax) sentiment is nothing new on social media, and has been a part of the online ecosystem for years. Despite social media companies’ promises to combat its spread, anti-vax propaganda has taken root in many conspiracy minded groups on social media and there seems to be no penalty for the worst super-spreaders of these falsehoods. The Children’s Health Defense and the National Vaccine Information Center are both examples of well established organizations with links to important figures in American politics and society. The anti-vax community is organized and has been around for years, so attempts by social media companies to suddenly clamp down now, just as the Covid vaccines begin distribution, is a bit like trying to put out a forest fire with a garden hose.
One of the more uniquely pernicious aspects of anti-vax conspiracies is that they are appealing to large swaths of the population and are found across the political spectrum. For various reasons, anti-vax conspiracies appeal to the libertarian right, Big Pharma skeptics, helicopter parents, ‘cruchy-granola’ liberals, minority groups, the affluent and the poor and a number of other sub-sections of society. Even Robert De Niro, a celebrity champion of the left due to his outspoken criticisms of President Trump, joined forces with Robert F. Kennedy to promote anti-vaccine views in Washington D.C. a mere three years ago. At this point, it’s an entrenched feature of American society.
For now, as the vaccine roll out is well underway, far more people are demanding vaccinations than the number of vaccines available. On the whole, this is a good thing. Public health officials, however, have expressed concern about the effect of anti-vaccine misinformation down the road, as a significant proportion of the population will need to be inoculated to stop the spread of the virus. In a recent Pew study, a majority of Americans said that they would get the vaccine, but 21% of the adult population said that they would not get the vaccine and are fairly certain that further information would not change their minds.
On top of conspiracy theories and institutional distrust, attitudes toward vaccines have unfortunately been affected by their politicization. Anti-vax sentiments have mostly found their home in the Republican party, who just this month invited an anti-vax doctor to testify in front of a Senate Committee. Despite being miles ahead of the Republican party on this issue, Democrats have also needlessly undermined public trust in vaccines for political reasons. When asked whether or not she would take the vaccine, Kamala Harris was widely criticized for expressing doubt about any vaccines introduced under a Trump administration, saying she “didn’t trust Donald Trump.” Perhaps the greatest irony of the vaccine’s politicization is the predicament it now puts President Trump in. Despite wanting to claim all the credit for the vaccine, many of his supporters refuse to take it and Trump has so far been unwilling to get vaccinated publicly.
To be fair, it is rational to have at least some legitimate concerns about the safety of these vaccines, considering that they have not been approved by the FDA and instead were fast-tracked to authorization under an Emergency Use Authorization. However, these concerns have largely been addressed by scientists and health officials. In fact, the science on vaccines in general is pretty clear for those who care to put in the effort. Vaccine misinformation online is largely based on falsehoods, and those political actors and opportunists who frame the issue as one of individual freedom rather than public health are equally at fault for misleading the public.
At its core, vaccine misinformation is a public health issue and should be treated as such. Facebook and other social media platforms have certainly played a part in proliferating misinformation, and in turn they do have a role to play in tamping down its continued spread. However, social media companies alone cannot stem the spread of these pernicious and misleading falsehoods.
While it is heartening to see high ranking officials demonstrate the safety of these vaccines by being publicly inoculated, in the long-run there is no vaccine for misinformation. The best way to combat anti-vax propaganda is to treat it like the public health emergency that it is.
CDC information on the COVID-19 vaccines
Vaccine misinformation spreading despite new policies
Social media platforms’ policies and their failures
Facebook’s newest coronavirus policy
Pew Research on vaccine confidence
Anti-vax doctor at Senate hearing
Kamala Harris’s comments about vaccines