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Anti-vaccine misinformation is like a “dirty bomb”, a leading campaigner against fake news has told Working Voices. Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) said misinformation “has the potential to infect hundreds of thousands”. A poll commissioned by the CCDH suggests 33% of adults in the UK may refuse a vaccine against Covid-19, as and when one becomes available. For herd immunity to develop, scientists estimate around 80% of the population would need to be inoculated. Ahmed believes social media platforms have allowed the vaccine debate in the UK to become swamped by misinformation and false equivalence, issues which could make or break our chances of an early escape from the virus. 

 The UK is one of dozens of nations working on a vaccine, with around 200 potential solutions in development globally. There’s no guarantee of success. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization, said “there are concerns that we may not have a vaccine that may work, or that its protection would be short term.” To increase a vaccine’s chances of success, between 70 and 90% of the population would need to be inoculated. This would need a hefty amount of consent given that vaccines in the UK are not mandatory, which begs the question will we reach this level of participation? Unless we conquer false equivalence, the answer could well be no.

Misleading short cuts

False equivalence occurs whenever we regard two separate facts or arguments as being of equivalent value when in truth they’re not. At the moment, wearing a mask or not wearing a mask aren’t two positions each equally available to us, a personal choice reflecting notions of freedom. Wearing a mask saves lives, other people’s if not our own, which is why it is a legal requirement in shops. These facts outweigh personal opinion.

False equivalence is a short cut, helping us take a simple path through complex subjects. By quickly accepting two things as equal, without questioning the truth, we can spend less time and effort in critical thinking. According to Imran Ahmed, “critical thoughts are a really important component of the responses to misinformation.” We’re more likely to skip critical thoughts when we hear something from somewhere we trust. A report by the CCDH suggests that those who trust social media more than traditional media for news about Covid, are less likely to accept a vaccine.

The report is based on a YouGov survey, commissioned by the CCDH, which found that only 63% of those polled, who predominantly use social media for news on Covid, would probably get a vaccine. This compared with 72% among those mainly using traditional media. The survey of 1,663 adults in the UK in June also found that nearly one in six British adults said they would either definitely or probably turn down a vaccine, and a further sixth of respondents were unsure what they would do. With a third of UK adults not committing to a vaccine, the CCDH has been investigating the reasons for this level of hesitancy. “To be very clear, the CCDH considers the moral responsibility to fall entirely on the social media companies,” Ahmed told Working Voices.

The “billion-dollar anti-vaxx industry”

According to Ahmed, much anti-vaxx content, that was triggered by outbreaks of measles across the West last year, wasn’t removed from social media. Instead, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter simply hid or labelled material, “allowing the anti-vaxx industry to reach 41 million followers right from the start of the Covid pandemic”. Ahmed added, “social media platforms chose not to alienate an anti-vaxx user base that we estimate is worth up to $1 billion a year to them.” The CCDH found that since 2019, anti-vaccine social media pages and advocates have added 7.8 million more followers in the UK and US, an increase of 19%.

The social media companies have rejected claims that they’re not tacking the issue. A Facebook spokesperson said, “we are working to stop harmful misinformation from spreading on our platforms and have removed hundreds of thousands of pieces of COVID-19-related misinformation.” YouTube said they had taken similar action, including “raising authoritative content” and “reducing the spread of harmful misinformation”. Twitter said its top priority was protecting the “health of the public conversation”.

Fertile ground for conspiracists

Around the world, credible scientific work on a vaccine competes against negative opinions that have been offered before a vaccine has even been released. While the former is a reasoned process, the latter are premature expressions of concern. To suggest that science and premature opinion are equally valid is false equivalence.

In the face of the global pandemic, opinion is driven by anxiety. There is no vaccine yet, there is little we can be certain of. And in these challenging circumstances, conspiracy theories easily take root. Covid is a fertile breeding ground for conspiracists, some of whom ask us to believe that a virus which attacks the respiratory system is ‘caused’ by 5G phone masts.

Efforts to understand how conspiracy theories develop have greatly expanded in recent years. The authors of comprehensive research on the phenomenon, suggest that “conspiracy theories have encouraged many people to reject mainstream medicine”. This has reached the point where diseases that had been previously reduced are making a comeback in some parts of the world. This is worrying given that the World Health Organization has found that vaccination prevents 2-3 million deaths a year, and a further 1.5 million could be avoided if the number of vaccinations increased. According to the WHO, the top ten threats to global health last year, included vaccine hesitancy.

Hope for a healthy future

We are still some way from a vaccine, but work needs to begin now if we are to curb the impact of misinformation. How can false equivalence be contained? Mental health counsellor Dr Stephanie Sarkis says “First, educate yourself on the different forms it takes so you can recognize it.  Next, call it out when you see it.  Distance yourself from the source of the false equivalence.  The more we educate others about this cognitive bias, and hold those who use false equivalence accountable, the less impact it may make on an unsuspecting public.”

 Professor Heidi Larson, an anthropologist and head of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said misinformation “is a big problem, a growing challenge, and will it affect Covid-19? Yes, I think it will.” Nevertheless, she remains optimistic, believing that the majority of people are not ardent “anti-vaxxers”, but concerned parents or worried individuals with legitimate questions.

A feature of critical thinking is the responsibility we have to ourselves. In the Descent of Man, Darwin wrote “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” In these days of anxious uncertainty, we owe it to ourselves to answer legitimate questions with well-sourced knowledge, if we are to be sure our confidence is justified.

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