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Opinion: We are drawn to negative emotions like fear - and the infodemic exploits that

Dr Jane Suiter explores how one of the biggest challenges to public health in 2021 will be conspiracy theories around vaccines.

Dr Jane Suiter

THE WORLD IS suffering from twin pandemics: a global health pandemic in the form of
Covid-19; and an information pandemic, or ‘infodemic’ as the World Health Organisation
(WHO) calls it. While a vaccine is on the way to tackle the former, the latter is threatening to undermine the vaccination programme globally.

Around the world almost every aspect of life has been beset by false information, conspiracy theories and old-fashioned propaganda. These have always been with us of course, but the social media giants and populist demagogues provide immense fuel boosting their intensity and their spread.

As humans we have a ‘negativity bias’ that draws us to negative emotions like fear. At the root of the problem, there is a toxic synergy between this negativity bias and the business model of the digital platforms, which encourages sensational and conspiratorial content.

Conspiracy-theory narratives

Against this, the COVID-19 pandemic provided additional fuel for the fire. For example, QAnon, the conspiracy movement that the FBI has described as a domestic terror threat, produced viral anti-vax and anti-mask videos that spread like wildfire in the US and elsewhere. Shane Creevy of Kinzen, which monitors disinformation, has seen contact between leading Irish misinformation superspreaders and QAnon promoters like Amazing Polly, with all of them disseminating similar conspiracy-theory narratives.

Initially these narratives linked 5G and Covid-19 and masts were burnt in some places. To a large extent, those claims have died away. But other claims have remained more tenacious. In research FuJo conducted in June, some 35% of Irish people believed that the virus was manufactured in a lab and deliberately released.

We have also seen hundreds of people march through Dublin in anti-mask rallies, while some claim that The Late Late Toy Show was vaccine propaganda for Pfizer. A new anti-government protest group Yellow Vest Ireland, loosely modelled on the French Gilets Jaunes, has appeared with links to fringe radical right movements such as the National Party and Síol na hÉireann.

All you need to do is browse through The Journal’s factchecking work to see a sample of the wide-ranging rumours, hoaxes and conspiracy theories floating around the Irish information ecosystem. Hoaxes vary from the vaguely plausible (that you’ll need a vaccine passport to get social welfare) to the ludicrous (the army will microchip children to monitor them).

Three stages of a disinfo campaign

In a forthcoming book, Disinformation and Manipulation in Digital Media, my colleague Eileen Culloty and I argue that successful disinformation campaigns pass through three stages. They are created by bad actors who piggyback on topical issues and amplify existing prejudices. They are then amplified by the platforms and high-profile figures such as politicians and influencers and, finally, they are taken up by receptive audiences who willingly endorse and spread the false claims.

But, of course, there are a lot of different motivations at work here. For example, there was a lot of variance in the false claims surrounding Covid-19 and, in some cases, there was no intention to cause harm even though the information was incorrect.

8321 Anti-Mask Protest A Covid-sceptic crowd of protestors at the Custom House in Dublin in October. Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

The false claims we saw back in March and April can be broadly grouped into six areas: rumours (about new cases or heath advice); hoaxes (about policy measures); scams (often impersonating public bodies); conspiracy theories; political propaganda; and just inaccurate opinions.

The current most pressing problem is with conspiracy theories around the virus and vaccines.

An international anti-vax movement has been mushrooming in recent years and it responded quickly to the pandemic, laying the foundations for opposition to any Covid-19 vaccine. It is only in recent weeks that Facebook began to take action against some of the largest online anti-vaccine groups including ‘Stop Mandatory Vaccination’. Now many of these accounts have been removed from Facebook and migrated to other, less popular platforms.

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Overnight experts in epidemiology

Overnight, it seemed as though lots of people suddenly became experts in epidemiology and vaccine development. Some of the false claims are easy to recognise as deliberate efforts to deceive the public: the people behind hoaxes and scams are clearly bad actors including anti-government groups, and conspiracy theorists. Others are committed to a particular anti-vaccine view such as ‘alternative health’ advocates, while others are just concerned and uncertain.

A lot of dubious healthcare advice seems to have been created and shared in good faith. For example, we find that grandparents often share disinformation on vaccines despite doubts about its veracity because they want to protect grandchildren.

In Ireland, some anti-vaccination groups, including Health Freedom Ireland, were established long before the pandemic. During Covid-19, new groups and individuals emerged spreading false claims about the virus and the need for lockdown measures and vaccines. It’s paradoxical, of course, that those who are most vocal in their opposition to lockdown measures are also opposing the vaccines that will help bring an end to lockdowns.

Tackling the infodemic will be a critical concern for governments and health authorities around the world in 2021. In any campaign to encourage vaccine uptake the governmental and public health authorities must be able to distinguish these pathways and tendencies, they need to address common concerns and misunderstandings about vaccines and make sure people have access to clear information that answers their questions.

It is clear it is not just disinformation – rightly or wrongly, people have concerns or confusion about the science and that need to be addressed. 

It is also vital that journalists think about how they report on vaccines, particularly any claims about side-effects or health complications. The anti-vaccine movement will exploit these stories even if there is no proven link to vaccination. Claims of this sort already derailed the HPV vaccine. There is hope, it is just vital that we go on this journey together.

Dr Jane Suiter is the Irish Research Council’s Researcher of the Year 2020 for her work on the information environment in elections and referendums and on deliberation in the public sphere. She is an associate professor in DCU.

About the author:

Dr Jane Suiter

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