Revealed: the anti-vaccine plan to undermine COVID-19 response

Editorial Team

Editorial Team

January 14th, 2021

Editorial Team
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‘Conspiracy theorists targeting global COVID-19 vaccination campaigns held a ‘secret’ meeting in late 2020’

  • Anti-vaxx groups drew up plan to spread false information online
  • Falsely claim COVID-19 is not dangerous and that vaccines are high risk
  • Virtual conference infiltrated by Center for Countering Digital Hate
  • Campaigners call on tech companies to curb the spread of false information

 

In October 2020, as clinical trials on leading COVID-19 vaccine candidates were nearing a conclusion, anti-vaccine campaigners gathered for an online meeting. Viewing the pandemic as an opportunity to sow distrust of vaccines and health authorities, they drew up plans to train people to share misleading information through Facebook pages, WhatsApp groups, and YouTube Channels, along with Twitter and Instagram accounts. 

What they did not know was that their closed three-day meeting was attended by researchers from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a not-for-profit working to expose disinformation campaigns and pressure technology platforms into reducing the impact of dangerous information. 

CCDH researchers also gained access to some of the largest and most influential private Facebook groups that spread anti-vaccine misinformation, helping to expose the scale and speed at which misleading memes are circulating.  

A diverse group, the motivations of leading anti-vaccine campaigners attending the event vary widely. They ranged from full-time conspiracy theorists to alternative health ‘entrepreneurs’, and included Andrew Wakefield, a disgraced former doctor, along with Joseph Mercola who sells vitamins, supplements and oils. 

Their playbook is simple: repeatedly post and share information falsely claiming that (a) COVID-19 is not dangerous (b) vaccines are dangerous and (c) that doctors, scientists and public health authorities should not be trusted. 

Many attendees are also vociferous opponents of public health measures designed to limit the spread of COVID-19. At a time when some segments of the population are growing weary of restrictions, the anti-lockdown, anti-mask, anti-vaccine advocates enjoy a growing market. 

In July 2020, the CCDH published a detailed report on the ‘Anti-Vaxx Industry’, followed in September by Failure to Act – a direct call for intervention by companies who operate social media and search engines. Their central argument is that anti-vaccine information is a thriving business: some who pedal conspiracy theories directly benefit by selling alternative health products while big tech companies profit as anti-vaccine traffic grows. 

The campaign group estimates the audience for anti-vaccine misinformation to be worth up to $1 billion a year. Fewer than one in 20 misinformation posts are removed, despite ongoing pledges from technology companies to take greater responsibility for material shared on their platforms. 

‘Big Tech needs to make a decision, now that we expose the intent, the tactics and the deadly impact of the anti-vaxx industry, and the ways in which social media platforms have become integral to their success,’ said Imran Ahmed CEO, CCDH. ‘It is time for quantifiable, verifiable action, or governments need to step in to perform their ultimate duty – to protect the lives of the people who put them in place. 

For its part, CCDH has set out three key messages for the pro-science majority to share:

  1. COVID-19 can be deadly
  2. Vaccines are among the safest, most effective, most consequential human inventions in the past two centuries, saving countless lives from disease, disability and even death
  3. Doctors, scientists and public health professionals chose those professions because they want to help people and better understand the world. 

 

In December, the WHO held its 3rd Infodemic Conference and published a Call to Action. It is working with technology companies to make it easier to find reputable sources of information, and to help users report false information.

The legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will shape future uptake of routine immunisation. It may also influence how health systems and the public cope with coordinated misinformation campaigns. 

 

Read more: 
UNICEF Vaccine Misinformation Guide
WHO Vaccine Safety Net