After nearly two months of staying at home, everyone is eagerly awaiting the arrival of the promised knight in shining armor: a COVID-19 vaccine. Well, almost everyone. The anti-vaccine community is still alive and thriving.
In recent weeks, anti-vaccine groups joined lockdown protestors in California to profess their disdain for restrictions aimed at limiting the spread of the coronavirus, arguing that stay-at-home orders and a mandatory vaccine are an infringement on their personal liberties. Protests have not been limited to the streets, however. The anti-vaccine community is also promoting their agenda through social media.
“Plandemic,” a documentary by Judy Mikovits, a discredited virologist, has added gasoline to this wildfire. The 26-minute long documentary wrongly claims that the scientific elite created the virus in order to profit off of an eventual vaccine and that Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, buried Mikovits’ research on HIV in the 1980s, threatened her and later took credit for it.
Anti-vaccine groups, long time proponents of conspiracy theories, latched onto these false allegations. Clips from “Plandemic” circulated Facebook and Youtube and garnered over eight million views in just over a week. While both platforms eventually removed the videos because they were spreading inaccurate and dangerous information about the coronavirus, they took much longer than they should have, enabling the spread of public health misinformation across the Internet like a malignant tumor.
Even after its removal, “Plandemic” continues to roam the Internet as Facebook groups supporting QAnon and other conspiracy theories share links and post new copies.
It doesn’t take a genius to know that the propagation of health misinformation over social media has devastating public health implications, especially during a pandemic when a vaccine is our sole savior.
But how do we combat these conspiracy theories? Clearly social media companies are only doing a mediocre job, at best.
A 2019 study conducted by Neil Johnson and Rhys Leahy, researchers at George Washington University, revealed that there are nearly three times as many active Facebook anti-vaccine communities than there are pro-vaccine communities. Additionally, anti-vaccine communities are more effective at engaging and persuading indifferent individuals than either pro-vaccine groups or government public health agencies.
Why are they more effective? The anti-vaccine movement dispatches a wide array of messages, while public health officials tend to promote only one message: vaccines are safe and essential.
The diversity of the anti-vaccine movement also allows them to reach a broader audience. For example, a Facebook page emphasizing individual rights and freedoms will appeal to more conservatives and libertarians, while another advocating for homeopathic remedies might attract liberals who believe in all-natural and organic products.
Thwarting the online anti-vaccine campaign will be no small feat. It will require the collaboration of public health agencies and social media platforms and it will require creative, effective solutions.
Government health organizations must first understand and acknowledge the vast amount of power and influence that online anti-vaccine communities wield. You cannot wage a war if you don’t know what you’re up against.
Once they become more attuned with their opponents, these organizations must launch a campaign to renew public trust in the medical community. This campaign must be clever and attract people from a myriad of backgrounds—liberals, conservatives, Christians, atheists, the educated as well as the uneducated.
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It is not enough to engage existing pro-vaccinators; the campaign must draw in undecided individuals before the anti-vaccine movement ensnares them in their sticky spider’s web.
Social media companies are also accountable in this fight and must take the spread of erroneous vaccine information seriously. They must allocate more resources to stunting it, be vigilant in their pursuit of harmful misinformation and remove it quickly to prevent it from spreading further.
The online anti-vaccine movement is no joke. If we treat it like one, we risk a scenario in which a COVID-19 vaccine finally arrives to save us and a considerable segment of the population refuses to get vaccinated. A widely vaccinated population is necessary to establish herd immunity and prevent future outbreaks of the virus. If people refuse to take the vaccine, COVID-19 will continue to recur.
The pro-vaccine movement needs to be the victor. Our lives literally depend on it.