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How anti-vaccine misinformation took aim at the Toy Show - and what can be done about it

Ireland is seeing a lot of misinformation about vaccines right now – and there’s no sign of it stopping.

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THE LATE LATE Toy Show hadn’t even ended its broadcast on 27 November before the conspiracy theories were already being shared on Facebook.

“This is terrible!!! Propaganda. Turn off your TV. Brainwashing,” read one post. 

“Tonight’s show was nothing but another unelected government propaganda-filled opportunity for our State broadcaster to push the untested and rushed vaccine,” said another. 

“So Ryan Tubbs [sic] was pushing a vaccine for Coronavirus. What a fu**ing disgrace,” said a third. 

A pixellated image of Ryan Tubridy with ‘No shame’ printed across it was shared and liked by over one thousand people on Facebook. 

tubridy Source: Facebook

These people were unhappy with a segment of the Toy Show where a girl acted out giving a Covid-19 vaccine to one of her toys.

RTÉ told TheJournal.ie that its complaints office received more than 140 emails from the public about references to Covid-19 on the Toy Show. 

Research by TheJournal.ie has found more than 50 public Facebook pages and groups which criticised the Toy Show for the segment, according to social media search engine tool CrowdTangle. These posts have received close to 5,000 likes, shares and comments. 

Vaccine scepticism and misinformation has been swirling online in Ireland in recent months but has intensified as vaccine candidates have gotten closer to approval – and even the Toy Show is seen as a battleground. 

While exact figures are notoriously difficult to get from the social media platforms, anecdotal evidence seen by TheJournal.ie and other researchers suggests a serious increase in the amount and the type of scepticism and misinformation being shared about Covid-19 vaccines – raising concerns that these claims may influence people not to get it when it becomes available. 

“I think everyone who works in the [misinformation] space knows that there is a lot of it at the moment, but it is still difficult to quantify relatively,” says Seb Cubbon, a research analyst at First Draft, which tracks and fights misinformation. “It’s certainly the case that most regions in the world are experiencing this.”

Factcheckers around the world have factchecked at least 645 claims about Covid-19 vaccines, according to a database run by the International Fact-Checking Network (of which TheJournal.ie is a member).

For comparison, this is around four times as many factchecks about either Bill Gates or 5G, both popular topics for coronavirus misinformation. 

TheJournal.ie debunked its first piece of misinformation about a Covid vaccine on 23 April. Since then, some of the most widely-read debunks about vaccines include a claim that the first UK volunteer in a vaccine trial had died; that the vaccines hadn’t been tested on older people; and that Dr Anthony Fauci said a Covid vaccine must be produced without ‘proper studies‘. 

The themes are similar in Northern Ireland, where Factcheck NI has covered whether vaccines come with microchips, if they are made of cells from aborted foetuses, and how the vaccines have been developed so quickly

“There are a lot of claims and misleading narratives that tend to travel from region to region,” says Cubbon. “Most of the big topics are common, but then the smaller topics are very specific to regions and languages.”

Often, people may have joined a page or group on Facebook which started out with one goal and has moved to include anti-vaccination information or false news abut Covid. 

“We at First Draft found that conspiracy theories related to vaccines are actually starting to resonate with wider communities,” says Cubbon. “So anti-government groups, protest groups, civil liberty groups, New Age communities, for example. Conspiratorial content has been generating a lot of interaction in these larger [online] communities.”

This has been seen repeatedly in Ireland, where Facebook pages which began as anti-government protests have pivoted and found a willing audience in anti-vaccination content. 

What vaccine scepticism and misinformation looks like

The government acknowledged that vaccine misinformation is an issue in the report from the Covid-19 vaccine taskforce published last week – and offered a solution. 

The report said that public health doctors will “address misinformation which appears on social media and across the dark web” as the vaccine is being rolled out, and will point people to trusted State sources of information, such as gov.ie and hse.ie. 

It also said that there will be an “ongoing communications campaign” to provide factual information and reinforce public trust in the vaccine. 

Government research found that 45% of people in Ireland say they will definitely get the vaccine, while 28% say they probably will take it, according to Deputy Chief Medical Officer Ronan Glynn – which is a significant majority, but also leaves 27% of the population leaning towards not taking it. 

These people do not share all the same concerns. 

There is a spectrum of vaccine scepticism or misinformation on social media. Some people may be more vaccine-hesitant than vaccine-sceptic, while others are in the movable middle – and people often move between different categories when sharing and reading posts on social media. 

trends vaccine Levels of people searching for 'vaccine' on Google over the last year in Ireland Source: Google Trends

Research by First Draft identified six different narratives that are dominating the discussions about vaccines, by researching social media posts in English, Spanish and French. 

The single most popular narrative was around the political and economic motives of people involved in the vaccine, especially pharmaceutical companies, governments, and people funding the vaccine roll-out. 

A number of posts shared in Ireland in recent weeks have publicised the amount of money that Pfizer has had to pay in punitive fines in recent years, for example, or questioned Bill Gates’s involvement in vaccine provision, suggesting that he has nefarious reasons for doing so. 

The next most popular narratives are more logistical, and are about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and the development and provision of them. 

A typical example of these posts would say something like ‘They still haven’t developed a vaccine for HIV but they’ve managed to get a vaccine for Covid in nine months?!’. 

Often they appear in the guise of ‘just asking questions’; while they don’t contain always contain misinformation, they raise issues, either real or imagined, about the safety of the vaccine and may instill doubts among readers. 

Perhaps surprisingly, conspiracy theories are only the fourth-most popular narrative about vaccines. While Ireland would typically see low levels of conspiracy theories, TheJournal.ie has factchecked a number of these in recent months, including a viral claim that the Army was going to implant a chip into schoolchildren across Ireland while vaccinating them in order to monitor their movements. 

007-Twitter

Another claim said that people would need a ‘vaccination passport’ in order to receive social welfare. 

Often these theories spread across countries, and occasionally contain a grain of truth, but are distorted and manipulated – often using memes or images – to spread widely. 

The final two narratives are far more common in countries like the US and the UK than in Ireland. They involve claims about liberty/freedom and morality and religion. 

“Concerns over individual freedoms related to vaccines are very specific to Anglophone and particularly Northern American communities. Meanwhile, you get the morality and religious-based arguments or concerns for and against vaccines predominantly in Spanish communities, in South American communities,” said Cubbon. 

The battle for Irish authorities in rolling out the vaccine in the coming months will be to get the right information across to people who are following all or some of these different narratives. 

For the thousands of people on anti-government Facebook pages which have seen a mission creep to posting anti-vaccine content, the government will need to speak to the vaccine hesitant and sceptics when rolling out its message to encourage mass take-up of the vaccines. 

“People aren’t peruaded by facts alone, especially when the facts are about a new, rapidly developed vaccine,” as this opinion piece on StatNews puts it.  

Hiqa, which has been giving information to NPHET on the factors that influence the uptake of vaccines, says that the most important factor is providing knowledge so that people can make informed decisions. 

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“When we look at the success Ireland has had so far in managing the pandemic, it’s mostly been based on knowledge and consensus,” Dr Máirín Ryan of Hiqa told RTÉ Radio One’s News at One on Wednesday.

“So what we’re advising is that the vaccination campaign needs to be based on knowledge, communication and trust, because they’re all key to informed decision making.”

What to do if you’re concerned about vaccine misinformation on your social media feed – or if your family/friends are sharing it 

If you are thinking about talking to a family member or friend over Christmas who has been sharing misinformation, here are some tips about how to do it. 

006-Twitter

WHY: Firstly, let’s look at why people believe misinformation. A belief in outlandish social media posts and theories can be a very normal response to difficult issues, as FactCheckNI puts it – and 2020 has been filled with difficult issues. 

“People are trying to make sense of what’s been going on in the last year, and they’re finding theories and stories that have confirmed what they might have already expected about the world” says Dr Orna Young of FactCheckNI.  

Misinformation often has an emotional pull. “The thing about conspiracy theories and misinformation is that they have a stickiness to them,” says Young. “They can back up how people see the world and what matters to them.”

“Life during Covid is complicated, and conspiracies theories take things that are very complex and messy and require a lot of unpacking and tell a simple version of that.”

INTENT: These conversations can be difficult, but they’re important, says Young, especially now. She advises people to be pragmatic when deciding whether or not to talk to a friend or family member about it. 

“If it’s the case that someone is going to participate in something or act in a way that will impact them personally or a community, I think that’s the time to have the conversation,” she says. 

“So right now, in the run up to Christmas, we need to be having difficult conversations. The urgency is there.”

Intention is important. “Think about what your intent is. If it’s to make you look like the smart guy, don’t have that conversation. But if it’s to actually help people make better health decisions and have good information, that makes much more sense. People will understand where you’re coming from.”

EMPATHY: “We probably all have people doing this [sharing misinformation] in our lives and the main thing is to have empathy,” says Young. “Dehumanising people in any way doesn’t put you in a good starting point to have that conversation.”

“You have to meet someone where they are and ask them questions to understand where they’re at on a particular issue. Not belittling them is the key. You will be able to find common ground.”

QUESTIONS: Young says that asking questions is the key to getting people to think about misinformation. “Ask someone where they heard a piece of information and you can automatically get them thinking about the robustness of that source of information or any possible inconsistencies.”

This can be asking the person if they’ve Googled and found the information elsewhere; if the headline is accurate; and if authoritative sources are quoted in the piece. 

“And you can also ask if they’ve thought about what wasn’t included in the information, as a way to get them to think about the bigger issue.”

“A lot of these theories have really imprecise language. They’re generalising in a way designed to appeal to people’s emotions. Simple questions can reveal a lot.”

EXPECTATIONS: People do not change their views overnight so don’t expect that this will happen with loved ones. Instead, this is about starting a conversation. 

“We always tell people to stop, think and check,” says Young. “It’s so important to just take a second before you hit that share button.”

About the author:

Christine Bohan

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