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A Misinformation Disease

Vaccines provide a road out of lockdowns – and hope for a return to normality in 2021 – but misinformation and disinformation must be countered head on to ensure that uptake is high

COVID-19 has changed so many aspects of life as we know it. But the pandemic has also served to highlight another disease – that of misinformation and disinformation, which have surged on social media platforms as virulently as any virus over the past few years.

The pandemic has left a tragic calling card in the UK, with the consequences outlined starkly by the appalling daily death toll that has continued to climb throughout January. But the COVID era has also given rise to a threat no less insidious than that of the unseen killer. Social media is infected with misinformation about COVID-19, and the vaccines developed to tackle it, and the ‘share’ button is driving the rate of transmission.

A report by the US-based Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) on global vaccine misinformation, and the social media platforms that enable its spread, makes for chilling reading. The pandemic, the report notes, has provided “a growth opportunity for anti-vaxxers”, and “vaccination finds itself undermined as never before”.

Modern vaccines are widely regarded to be both safe and effective, although, as with many medicines and treatments, they can induce side-effects, which are typically mild. As the World Health Organization (WHO) points out, modern vaccines “have an excellent safety record” and have “greatly reduced the burden of infectious diseases”, saving millions of lives each year. Vaccines have all but eliminated polio, and totally eradicated the scourge of smallpox, a disease that killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century alone, according to a study by Donald Ainslie Henderson, the American doctor and epidemiologist who led the WHO’s successful 10-year mission to wipe out the virus.


COVID-19 and the spread of misinformation

Misinformation – and its more sinister cousin disinformation – are not new concepts; they’ve been around since time immemorial. The difference now is that social media is providing oxygen to misleading and false ‘information’, with platforms and apps acting as hubs for fake news and fanning the flames. Regarding vaccination misinformation, the CCDH report lays the blame firmly at the door of Big Tech firms, which have made “deliberate decisions” not to “…alienate an ‘anti-vaxx’ user base that […] is worth up to $1billion a year to them”.

Mis/disinformation comes in many forms – state actors, partisan news sites and individuals are just some of its mouthpieces. Many of us will be familiar with the WhatsApp messages purporting to come from a ‘friend’s uncle who is a doctor’ – insert ‘scientific expert’, insert ‘university academic’ – which circulated as the pandemic began to sweep the globe last year.

It would be easy to dismiss the impact of the vaccine misinformation that thrives in the ‘echo chamber’ of social media and other online platforms. Doing so would be a grave mistake. Sadly, some people will die of COVID-19 because of untruths swallowed about the disease on social media feeds and in chat rooms.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, a UK-based research centre and think tank, coined a new term in a report published in October 2020. Its authors use the word ‘infodemically vulnerable’ to describe the UK public subset who consume little to no news and information about COVID-19. As of August 2020, this group accounted for 15% of the UK’s adult population, having grown steadily in the preceding months as the virus took hold. The report points out that the infodemically vulnerable are “more susceptible to outright misinformation” than the informed percentage of the public.


Anti-vaxxers include the likes of Kate Shemirani, a (now suspended) nurse who became the face of the UK’s conspiracy community after making unsubstantiated claims about the pandemic, vaccines and 5G, before her social media platforms were eventually shut down. Shemirani, a disciple of misinformation or disinformation disseminator depending on your point of view, was not shouting into the abyss with her unsubstantiated claims, she was preaching to the infodemically vulnerable; the easily converted who made up her congregation.


Could misinformation hamper the vaccine charge?

The UK was the first country to authorise a vaccine against COVID-19 and is one of the frontrunners in the race to vaccinate populations. According to Oxford University data, it is fourth in the world in terms of the number of jabs delivered, with 8 per 100 people vaccinated as of 20 January. To expand on a previous analogy offered up by England’s charismatic Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, the vaccine ‘train’ is now picking up pace as it embarks on stops at its various stations.

The government is initially vaccinating nine high-priority groups and appears to be on track to meet its target of offering a first dose to everyone in the top four priority groups – some 15 million people – by 15 February. The final destination is the offer of a vaccine to the UK’s entire adult population by September.

However, mis/disinformation proliferated on social media, and other public platforms may hamper the rollout. Recent Understanding Society research reveals that vaccine scepticism in the UK among some ethnic minority groups and communities is high. Some 72% of black or black British people say they are unlikely to be vaccinated, while 42% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi groups are unlikely or very unlikely to have a jab. Although an encouraging 82% of total respondents say they do want the vaccine, uptake in some communities and ethnic groups remains a concern.

Hostile foreign states will continue to use vaccine disinformation as part of their armouries, as they have done in the past. The government has not been idle in the face of the threat, calling in the army to help counter malign anti-vaccine propaganda from state actors, with the 77th Brigade information warfare unit deployed to assist. Russia, which has a substantial form with disinformation, is a particular concern. Plans designed to counter vaccine misinformation are expected to be announced imminently. Meanwhile, the government agreed on a package of measures with social media giants in November 2020, aiming to halt the spread of vaccine-related fake news. Professor Van-Tam did not mince his words at a Downing Street press conference in December, stating: “You have to take the vaccine when it is offered to you. Low uptake will almost certainly mean restrictions will last longer.”

Ultimately, every jab in the arm is a victory; every shred of vaccine misinformation swallowed a setback, offering a potential lifeline for the virus as its escape routes begin to narrow. The greater the uptake, the quicker the path to victory – not, indeed, ultimate success in the form of eradication, but greatly-diminished death rates and the lifting of draconian restrictions that have been without precedent in the UK’s modern history, heralding a return to relative normality in the second half of 2021. The higher the vaccine uptake, the faster that can happen.

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