Vaccinations are one of the greatest successes in public health. We read about diseases like smallpox in history books, rather than news websites, precisely because of vaccines, which helped to eradicate them.
However, since the beginning of the pandemic there has been a huge volume of misleading information and blatant conspiracy theories about the vaccines. In fact, the “vaccine scare” has been present in the undergrowth of information space for quite some time, successfully exploited by disinformation actors, state and non-state.
In 2018 the American Journal of Public Health published the findings of a research, indicating that over 93 percent of messages about vaccines posted on Twitter between 2014 and 2017 came from malicious accounts. Those malicious accounts, some of which were linked to the infamous “troll factory” based in St. Petersburg, Russia, tweeted both pro- and anti-vaccine messages to sow discord and confusion and undermine public trust in vaccination.
The global pandemic, accompanied by what the World Health Organization called an “infodemic”, fuelled the spread of anti-vaccination disinformation. Indeed, vaccines, and in general health-related issues, provide a fertile ground for all sorts of disinformation. These are highly complex topics that encourage us to seek new information (especially so at times when little was known about the novel coronavirus), and at the same time are likely to evoke emotions of curiosity, fear, anxiety, and concern. Past research has shown, that a mix of “novelty” and emotions help falsehoods to spread nearly 6 times faster than the truth.
That is why multiple disinformation actors, including foreign states, find anti-vaccination messages so attractive. They can be used as a wedge issue to sow discord, exacerbate fear and social polarisation and above all, to undermine trust in health and public authorities, in science and media and in each other.
Very often vaccine-related disinformation messages are built around a “kernel of truth” that make them more believable and more difficult to call out. For example, to discredit one of the COVID-19 vaccine producers, Russian state-controlled media took a part of a truth, namely, that their vaccine was developed using a chimpanzee viral vector, and rebranded it as “the monkey vaccine”. Such a moniker aimed not only to mock the vaccine producer, but also to tap into fears about the safety and “purity” of the vaccine.
Just like vaccines can provide immunity to viruses, including COVID-19, we can build immunity to disinformation. And we can do it ourselves. Hygiene, such as frequent hand-washing, helps to protect us from COVID-19. In the same manner, information hygiene can slow down the spread of harmful misleading information, especially on the social media.
To practise information hygiene – pause, and think before you share or engage with the content online. Ask yourself:
Be prepared! If you feel overwhelmed and unsure about the information you see, inform yourself about the EU response to coronavirus pandemic. Read to learn more:
It is always a good idea, to check what the fact-checkers are saying. Here’s a few suggestions:
• Disinformation database about the coronavirus – FIRSTDRAFT
• Exposing and explaining disinformation – Digital Forensics Lab
And finally, check EUvsDisinfo to see the latest examples of pro-Kremlin disinformation, including about vaccines.