The battle to stop the spread of vaccine misinformation online

The rollout of coronavirus vaccines has presented new challenges to social media websites and groups fighting online misinformation.

Conspiracy theories regarding the origins and potential treatments designed to contain the COVID-19 outbreak have been viewed and shared globally [File: John Raoux/AP Photo]

When the United States and a handful of other countries began rolling out coronavirus vaccines late last year, a film propagating falsehoods about the coronavirus outbreak was racking up millions of views online.

The unsubstantiated claims in the “Planet Lockdown” video include debunked theories that the coronavirus vaccines will modify a person’s DNA, cause infertility and contain microchips to track human beings. The film received at least 20 million combined views or engagements across social media sites before Facebook and YouTube banned it from their platforms.

The video was reminiscent of a 26-minute documentary titled “Plandemic” that went viral last year. It made baseless and widely refuted claims about the coronavirus outbreak, including that billionaires had helped spread COIVD-19 to increase vaccine use. The film had 1.8 million views and some 17,000 comments by the time Facebook took it down.

Misinformation about the coronavirus has spread widely online since the early days of the outbreak. Conspiracy theories relating to the origins of the virus, potential treatments and measures designed to contain its spread have been viewed and shared around the world. Some world leaders, including Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former US President Donald Trump, have used their vast reach on social media to amplify misinformation.

So-called anti-vaxxers, people who oppose the use of vaccines, have spread misinformation around vaccines for years, but the heightened interest in vaccines amid the coronavirus pandemic presented them with an opportunity to reach a wider audience. Health experts have warned that the spread of misinformation around the vaccines could derail vaccination campaigns around the world and ultimately lengthen the duration of the pandemic.

“The most immediate threat from anti-vaxxers is that they successfully dissuade enough people from taking the vaccine, prolonging this pandemic and causing further deaths,” Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), told Al Jazeera.

According to a Monmouth University poll published on March 8, some 25 percent of  Americans said they “do not intend to get vaccinated and are ‘pretty certain’ more information will not change their mind”.

Ahmed said the increased public interest in vaccines at a time when misinformation is so rife online could lead more people “to doubt the efficacy and safety of vaccines in general. This could have disastrous consequences for the take up of polio, flu and MMR vaccines in the coming years”, he warned.

Fighting vaccine misinformation

Amid the glut of misinformation online, independent advocacy and watchdog groups including CCDH are stepping up to fight immunisation myths and conspiracy theories.

A nonprofit, CCDH’s work includes publishing investigative, evidence-based reports on anti-vaxxers. Some of its reports detail the tactics and strategy in spreading misinformation online and reach on social media sites. The group has also launched programmes like Don’t Spread the Virus, endorsed by the United Kingdom government, to help online users counter “the scourge of misinformation on coronavirus online”.

Health experts warn that the spread of misinformation could derail vaccination campaigns and ultimately lengthen the duration of the coronavirus pandemic [File: Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo]

Meanwhile, NewsGuard, which aims to inform internet users about the trustworthiness of information online, launched a “VaxFacts” campaign to provide users with the tools to “make informed decisions about vaccines”. The campaign includes the tool HealthGuard, a browser extension that provides ratings for health-related websites and social media pages and is free to use during the COVID emergency.

The for-profit group said it has worked in partnership with the World Health Organization since August to produce regular reports on the spread of vaccine and coronavirus misinformation on social media. Anna-Sophie Harling, managing director for Europe at NewsGuard, told Al Jazeera the company was founded on the idea of “user empowerment” which she asserted had never been more essential “than during a global pandemic”.

How do anti-vaxxers operate?

According to CCDH, anti-vaxxers use a “simple” strategy to try and spread their messages online.

“Exploit social media algorithms’ predilection for controversial and engaging content to hammer five home three key messages – COVID isn’t dangerous; vaccines are dangerous; and mistrust of doctors, scientists and public health authorities,” the group said in its report titled Anti-Vax Playbook.

The document revealed how a group of prominent anti-vaxxers met in a private online conference hosted by the US-based National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) in October, with the goal to “destroy” trust in coronavirus vaccines. The NVIC is regarded as one of the leading organisations in the anti-vax movement in the US.

“A number of speakers at the NVIC conference presented the COVID-19 pandemic as an historic opportunity to popularise anti-vaccine sentiment,” noted the CCDH, which had a research team at the event.

While some anti-vaxxers are true believers, “most financially benefit from the spreading of misinformation”, Ahmed told Al Jazeera.

“Some are making hundreds of thousands of dollars from their lies, and run organisations with over 100 employees,” he said. “Social media has enabled the anti-vax industry to grow into a profitable sector. There are some true believers, and others who simply enjoy the feeling of celebrity that social media helps to stimulate.”

Ahmed cautioned that it was crucial to separate people “who are yet to be convinced by the COVID vaccines, about which people have reasonable questions and concerns”, and anti-vaxxers – who he said “spread lies about vaccines to prevent others from being able to come to an informed decision”.

The UK/US-based nonprofit said the total English language audience for anti-vaxxers online has seen significant growth over the past year – with a follower count of some 59 million people, that include social media sites like Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook.

NVIC’s president and co-founder, Barbara Loe Fisher, in an emailed statement to Al Jazeera, said her organisation “does not make vaccine use recommendations and encourages everyone to become fully informed about the risks and complications of infectious diseases and vaccines and speak with one or more trusted health care professionals before making a decision about vaccination”.

The NVIC and other anti-vax groups have been accused of “inflaming fears about a handful of deaths” since the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines globally, despite statements from medical authorities claiming that other underlying causes were to blame for the deaths, not the vaccine.

As per NewsGuard, the NVIC website has a trust rating of 17.5/100.

Facebook bans vaccine misinformation

Health officials have long criticised social media sites for not doing enough to tackle vaccine misinformation, which the WHO has warned could “reverse decades of progress made in tackling preventable diseases”. Facebook has been cited by researchers as a hub for false claims regarding vaccines.

“Facebook is the epicentre of vaccine misinformation of social media sites,” Ana Santos Rutschman, assistant professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law, told Al Jazeera – citing the sheer number of users on the platform, which is more than 2.7 billion monthly active users as of January 2021.

On February 8, Facebook announced it was removing all misinformation about vaccines from its platform while expanding its list of falsehoods with more “debunked claims”.

“As the situation has evolved we’ve been regularly updating the types of claims we remove based on guidance from leading health organisations like the WHO,” a Facebook spokesperson told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement.

Facebook says it’s going all in to block the spread of bogus vaccine claims [File: Jenny Kane/AP Photo]

During the 2019 measles outbreak in the US, a study by researchers at George Washington University of 100 million Facebook users showed that while in absolute terms more users were pro-vaccine, those holding anti-vaccine views were far more active online.

Since then, social media sites have increased their efforts to moderate health-related content. In addition to updating their list of false claims, Facebook in its February update said it was undertaking efforts to improve its search results policy by promoting “relevant, authoritative results”, and connecting to third-party resources to provide expert information on vaccines.

Regarding Instagram, the company said it was actively working to make it harder to find pages that “discourages people from getting vaccinated”. Social media company Twitter also has a policy in place requiring the removal of tweets that provide false information about the coronavirus.

While describing the latest upgrades in Facebook’s misinformation policy as “marginally better” and “more stringent” than previous attempts, Rutschman noted that social media companies should do more to tackle misinformation in non-English languages.

A study in Brazil in October found that despite repeated attempts to highlight and identify misinformation, YouTube’s Portuguese-language pages, channels and videos circulating misinformation continued to be available.

“YouTube needs to have a qualified team of human content moderators for different countries and languages. Our research suggests that their automated filters are not capable of identifying certain types of harmful content in Portuguese,” the researchers said.

Government intervention?

For some experts, offline efforts by governments will play a key role in promoting vaccine use and countering conspiracy theories.

“The job of communicating with the people lies with the government,” Vish Viswanath, professor of health communication at Harvard University, told Al Jazeera.

“The Centers for Disease Control of the world should be actively addressing the misinformation.”

Vishwanath said government policy should  “be very tactical and strategic” with the need to work at the ground level, engaging the communities including the local religious leaders and non-profit organisations who are more trusted.

“You can counter misinformation online, that’s fine. But it’s important to note that online information if often circulated online through social networks,” he said.

“If I tell them that this or that information if useless, Why should they trust me? But if their local imam, priest or rabbi tells them, people they know and trust, that is far more useful.”

Source: Al Jazeera