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How anti-vaxxers capitalised on coronavirus conspiracy theories

Global susceptibility to misinformation and a pandemic-induced fear of the unknown have given anti-vaccination activists a new lease of life. 

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When Daniel* first became involved in his local church group three years ago, he was exposed to a wide-range of political opinions and ideas. The group, based in a university town in Indiana, was largely frequented by students and academics. But as time went on, he started coming across more and more people espousing radical ideologies. 

“I’ve known conspiracy theorists and online alt-right types for years,” he says. It wasn’t uncommon for him to hear these notions in meetings or see them posted occasionally on Facebook. His church group had always been politically diverse, though, and members prone to such ideas didn’t air them very publicly. Controversy remained firmly outside of the group’s discussions.

But in March, Daniel started noticing a change in the conversation. With the group operating predominantly on Facebook as infection rates grew, many members, across multiple generations, began regularly posting an array of misinformed content online. Anti-mask memes, plandemic videos, but mostly, posts about anti-vaccination dogged Facebook posts, causing arguments in the group. “They would receive pushback, what seemed to me to be very reasonable explanations and corrections about these issues,” he says. 

But as the months passed and lockdown dragged on, the posts became unavoidable and frequent. Now, in July, Daniel feels hopeless – he sees no end in sight. “It’s a revolving door of people who respond, because the people responding get worn out, but the posters never do,” he says. “It seems like they’re just energised more by it. And everyone else is successively worn down.”

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On 7 July, a survey from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that nearly one in six Britons would not take a coronavirus vaccine. “Our health authorities have, understandably, focused on acute management of the Coronavirus threat and its spread. Out of sheer necessity, as they try to comprehend the disease, the message has been ‘trust our best guess,’” Imran Ahmed, the CEO of CCDH, said in the report’s introduction. “This has given anti-vaxxers an opportunity to exploit subtle shifts in recommendations as scientific knowledge grows and position themselves in opposition to an aloof, fallible medical establishment in the same way that political ‘populists’ define themselves in part by contrasting their authenticity to a real or imagined political ‘establishment’s’ failures.”

Ahmed put the onus on social media companies to stamp out the spread of anti-vaccine misinformation. “Social media companies can start by enforcing their own policies on Covid-related and health misinformation,” he said. “Given the findings in this report and the lavish profits social media companies have made tolerating this activity, anything less would be gross negligence.” 

Conversations around Covid-19 are underpinned by a central question. Whether it’s economic recovery, the logistics of easing, or even social inequality, the key issue is when, how, and if there will be a coronavirus vaccine. Beyond assuming there may ever be one, there is another assumption: that everyone, aside from a crackpot handful, would take it. But the growth in voices expressing opposition to a Covid-19 vaccine is proving that anti-vaxx is increasingly mainstream. And thanks to a wider network of conspiracy theories circling on social media, hundreds of millions of people across the world are beginning to believe a coronavirus vaccine would be too risky to take. 

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Social media has given a new lease of life to the anti-vaccination movement – a groundswell of people opposed to being vaccinated against diseases  over the last ten years. Influencers, particularly on Facebook and Instagram, have helped anti-vaxx surge in popularity. Citing debunked reports and bad science on “wellness”, they’ve built careers out of offering alternative healing methods to deal with illnesses that have effective vaccines. They’ve long regurgitated false information around the risks of developmental issues if you vaccinate young children and touted “natural” ways to build immunity (such as apple cider vinegar and garlic). 

In February, while anti-vaxxers continued to post their typical content, the pandemic began to spread. With the coronavirus a growing number of conspiracy theories took hold of the general public. The idea that the virus was a hoax or man-made, or the particularly popular idea that it was caused by 5G cell towers (or nicher, that 5G wasn’t necessarily what was getting people sick, but that the pandemic was a distraction from the perceived sinister implementation of 5G across the UK), gained ground in increasingly mainstream spaces. 5G conspiracy theories found a home with public figures and television broadcasters. They began popping up in the tweets and Instagram Stories of celebrities and influencers. They watched their audiences grow as they promoted conspiracy or scoffed at public concerns over Covid-19. 

So after years of flourishing in their now-predictable format on social media, members of the anti-vax movement decided to approach the pandemic from a different angle. Rather than simply promoting their traditional message that vaccines are physically harmful, these influencers and propaganda pages pivoted to calling Covid-19 a hoax that you wouldn’t need to be vaccinated for – a conspiracy to put people in danger (of what, they don’t say; for whose benefit, anti-Semitic tropes often make an appearance). 

Anti-vax influencers, such as Taylor Winterstein and Melissa Wells, have pivoted to posting about coronavirus backlash, backing the anti-lockdown and anti-mask movements and mixing anti-vax content with memes about conformity and government control. In an Instagram story mid-May, Wells posted a meme saying the way to build natural immunity was through healthy eating and exercise, while the government recommends to “wear a mask” and “live in perpetual fear and snitch on those who don’t relinquish their rights.” In one post to her main feed, Winterstein wrote: “HOTSPOTS, LOCKDOWNS, MASKS, TRACKING, TESTING, VACCINE, DIGITAL ID.... are you ok with where this is heading?! Cause if you're not you have a DUTY TO SPEAK UP AND STAND UP NOW.” It has currently received more than five thousand likes. 

Anti-vax pages that were previously dedicated to spreading vaccine misinformation have also taken up this subtle re-jig. Vaccines Uncovered, an Instagram account with 116,000 followers, now reposts memes, tweets, news stories, and screenshots related to Covid-19 daily, from anti-mask scare stories to Bill Gates conspiracy theories, alongside their usual fare of fake vaccine science that is subtly aired in the captions under their posts. They have piggybacked onto wider paranoia around the pandemic and made their message more dynamic, drawing people in with arguments that masks can cause health issues and serving them anti-vax misinformation on the side. In what plays into journalist Anna Merlan’s theory of conspiracy singularity, anti-vax posts live between a whole host of other conspiracy theory content. You may not believe all vaccines are dangerous, but this one must be if it’s the cure for a virus these other theories prove doesn’t exist.  

Like other conspiracy theories related to Covid-19, the coronavirus-specific anti-vax movement has drawn in major celebrity endorsements. One of the first and most notable was men’s tennis No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who said that he was “opposed to vaccination” and would have a decision to make if a coronavirus vaccine became mandatory in order to participate in future tournaments. Another early voice was rapper MIA, who posted in the first week of the UK’s lockdown that she would “choose death” over taking a coronavirus vaccine. By May, disgraced doctor Andrew Wakefield (who infamously authored the now-debunked study linking the MMR vaccine to autism and has since been stripped of his medical license) began to warn people that the pandemic was an orchestrated hoax. Even as recently as Monday, Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton had to issue an apology after sharing a conspiracy theory video on Instagram accusing Bill Gates of lying about coronavirus vaccine trials. 

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While social media companies have said they aim to crack down on anti-vaxx material  Facebook in particular  it’s still incredibly easy to find. Typing in “vaccine” to Instagram almost immediately yields exclusively anti-vaccination propaganda pages (they are second only to the page for indie rock band The Vaccines). “In our sample, anti-vaxx Facebook groups and pages command over 31 million followers, well over half of the combined following of all the accounts we studied,” the CCDH report reads. “Anti-vaxx accounts have nearly 17 million subscribers on YouTube and 7 million on Instagram.”

Last week, the team working on the Covid-19 vaccine at Oxford University announced that new obstacles had been overcome: trials showed that injection of the test vaccine had triggered an immune response. “I’m never going to poison my body”, “never in a million years” and “anybody signing up for this is suicidal” were some of the hundreds of anti-vax responses to the news under a BBC tweet. While the government, charities, and individual users have voiced concern about the implications of the growing movement, social media companies are quietly ignoring demands to stem the spread of the misinformation. And this is only just getting started.

*Name has been changed 

Sarah Manavis is the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. Sign up to her free weekly newsletter the Dress Down for the latest film, TV, art, theatre and book reviews.