Covid-19: Misinformation and The Anti-Vaccination Movement

By Finn Beckett-Hester, GLOBUS Correspondent

As of the 1st of April 2019, the moment of writing, there are 858,371 recorded cases of Covid-19 leading to some 42,146 related deaths. The novel coronavirus which has taken the world by storm in recent months continues to spread rapidly with some 61,348 new cases on the 30th of March alone.  

Consequently, governments and private companies alike are investing heavily into the development of a vaccine, with the World Health Organisation stating at least 20 vaccines are currently being developed. The premier corporation is biotech firm Moderna which has already started human trials in Seattle, USA. Due to the nature of vaccine development, this will take some 18 months to get to the stage where it is accessible to the public. However, it may not just be lengthy clinical trials and development which delay Covid-19 from being eradicated. The anti-vaccination movement, as a broader facet of the popularisation of conspiracy theories and pseudo-intellectualism in digitalised spaces (as well as in more traditional spaces), threatens to thwart the success of the vaccination roll out, as well as on-going containment methods. The anti-vaccination movement, most prominent in the United States, directly contravenes UN Sustainable Development Goal 3.2 and 3.8 respectively, by hemming the ability of nations to build herd immunity to diseases.  

Goal 3.2: By 2030, end preventable deaths of new-borns and children under 5 years of age, with all countries aiming to reduce neonatal mortality to at least as low as 12 per 1,000 live births and under-5 mortality to at least as low as 25 per 1,000 live births

Goal 3.8: Achieve universal health coverage, including financial risk protection, access to quality essential health-care services and access to safe, effective, quality and affordable essential medicines and vaccines for all

The anti-vaccination movement was conceived as a reaction to the United Kingdom’s Vaccination Act of 1853 which made vaccination for small pox mandatory for infants up to 3 months old. The groups that spawned resisted these laws on the grounds of individual liberty, specifically the Anti Vaccination League and the Anti-Compulsory Vaccination League. These movements spread across developed continental Europe and North America where they are concentrated today. Conspiracist ideation has emerged as a cultural phenomenon in the 20th and 21st centuries, with significant influence and attraction.  

Anti-vaccination groups have become emboldened nationally and internationally as a direct consequence of the internet revolution and, more recently, in the era of post-factualism. Nowhere is this more evident than in the United States, where measles had been fully eradicated in the year 2000. However, the disease has since resurged as a direct consequence of parental resistance to the MMR vaccine, spurred on by ex-physician Andrew Wakefield in a 1998 paper published in the Lancet claiming a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine and autism. Since 2014 public health bodies in the USA have observed an increase in anti-vaccination sentiment, especially amongst those living in metropolitan areas. During 2019, two separate measles outbreaks occurred in the state of Washington infecting a total of 87 people. Congruent with the current Covid-19 outbreak are the alarming results of a study by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health and University of Georgia which found that fewer than 10% of Americans would take a H1N1 emergency vaccine during the 2009 H1N1 outbreak. This casts doubt on the possible success in the uptake of any Covid-19 vaccine if, and when, it is developed. 

Covid-19 (and its ostensibly impending vaccination) has been no exception to conspiracy theories and “fake news” Facebook, YouTube and other social media platforms have become epicentres for such conspiracy theories. I will go into some of these below. The first way by which these individuals and groups attempt to thwart the global response to the coronavirus is by down-playing the severity of the virus. This may include promoting resistance to quarantine measures and social distancing. One such group is “Oregonians for Healthcare Choice”, with over 10,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook. They are named in such a way to appear in Facebook search results and appear credible to unsuspecting users. Below is an image claiming that Covid-19 is a scare tactic to implement mandated vaccination (Image 1). 

The idea of the subversion of political and social liberties and a moral outrage is pervasive throughout much of the anti-vaccination literature and Covid-19 scepticism; the idea that some overbearing force or cabal is attempting to exert total control. One such advocate of this line of thought is “Dr Tenpenny” with over 4,400 ‘likes’ on Facebook (Image 2).  

America’s overtly partisan political climate has subsumed discourses surrounding Covid-19, with some claiming that Covid-19 is a plot by the Democratic Party in the US to overturn President Donald Trump’s legitimacy (Image 3 and 4). In this regard groups utilise social media as a method by which to strengthen and popularise anti-vaccination discourses. Research by Naomi Smith and Tim Graham concludes that these Facebook groups and other closed social media circles create an uncritical hive mind whereby ” information diffuses quickly and easily through the network, in this instance through user-generated comments”. Giving credence to this point is a study by MIT which found that factual information takes around six times as long to spread as misinformation.  

To understand the rationale behind conspiracist ideation, I turn to the academic field of social psychology. Professor David Luden states that “conspiracy theories can give their believers a sense of control and security”. This is especially true when the alternative account feels threatening. This form of knowledge can feel unique and empowering, as way as playing a major role in community building, even if its theories are empirically falsifiable. These theories may also gain credence as a result of celebrity endorsement, such as Robert De Niro, who voiced his belief in the link between vaccines and autism. 

Such theories are not limited to fringe groups on social media, but also in more traditional publications, such as an Op Ed in Russia Today, which asserted that responses to Covid-19 have been unconstitutional – “Governments across America already used the pandemic, and the media-stoked panic around the pandemic particularly, to limit, restrict or remove First Amendment freedoms of speech and free association”. The author also posits that this is a global subversion tactic to undercut democratic movements – “Remember the Hong Kong protests? Gone. Remember the Yellow Vest protests? Soon to be gone. Seen any protests on American streets today? A pandemic is here. Protests gone. Constitution quarantined.” 

The next part of this sinister movement are its attempts to discredit national and international health organisations and their scientific explanations. ‘Health Impact News’, an anti-vaccination website, proclaims that the World Health Organisation is “now compounding the domestic panic, warning that America could become the new coronavirus “epicentre”. The website goes further to discredit the lead member of the US coronavirus task force, Dr. Anthony Fauci, claiming that he wasted “billions of government funds on vaccine research“. At the bottom of the article a book titled “A Guide to Healing from Vaccine Injury eBook” is advertised.  

The discrediting of expertise in the era of post-factualism pervades to the highest levels of government, most notably with US President Donald Trump denying WHO estimates of a 3.4% global death rate based on a “hunch“, stating the statistics given by the WHO are “really a false number”. Trump goes further to claim that warm weather will kill the virus – of course – without any scientific backing. Brazil’s Bolsonaro has also made a plethora of erroneous claims such as calling Coid-19 “a little flu” and that Brazilians “never catch anything“. These statements and lack of effective action create a problematic social climate in which medical knowledge is disregarded and filtered out through ideologically-loaded messages of the primacy of the economy and individual liberties. 

It is always crucial to be sceptical about established knowledge, mainstream discourses and political decisions, but it is also crucial to not be foolish in times of peril. Covid-19 poses a global existential crises which will only be solved, like most things, with rational and scientifically-based action. It cannot be taken for a granted that a vaccine will be developed and successfully implemented. Institutions, especially governments must take the threat of misinformation and pseudo-science seriously. Private corporations such as Facebook need to do more to fully remove all groups releasing harmful medical information, especially those related to the anti-vaccination movement. As it stands conspiracy theorists and the anti-vaccination movement pose a major threat achieving Sustainable Development Goal 3. 


I would like to thank my good friend Danny Hill for his provision of resources to make this article possible. 

Header Image: Photo by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash

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