These malignant actors have developed their strategic understanding over years of advocacy and practice. Their strategy is simple. Exploit social media algorithms’ predilection for controversial and engaging content to hammer home three key messages – Covid isn’t dangerous; vaccines are dangerous; and mistrust of doctors, scientists and public health authorities. Despite the variety of styles, tones and themes employed by the anti-vaccine movement, every meme they share is in service to one of these three messages.
Our response must be equally simple: to inoculate against misinformation by ignoring the individual memes generated by the anti-vaxx industry and instead focus on communicating our core message – one that has the benefit of being true:
- Covid is deadly;
- 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; and
- Doctors, scientists and public health professionals chose those professions because they want to help people and better understand the world.
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. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google can stop this now. They could stop providing services to people whose business is in enabling the spread of disease and death.
The tech giants keep telling us that they will remove anti-vaxx content from their websites and yet the key players exposed in The Anti-Vaxx Industry are still meeting months later, gleefully plotting how the Coronavirus vaccine presents them with an opportunity to sell their false cures and false hope on social media platforms. Anything less than the dismantling of these individuals’ profiles, pages and groups and permanent denial of service, now they know what is happening, is willing acquiescence.
The Anti-Vaxx Playbook
The online debate between vaccine advocates and anti-vaxxers is not symmetrical. The medical and scientific professionals attempting to turn the tide of the Covid pandemic must ask others to take action: to use a Covid vaccine. To do so, they must convince the public that Covid is dangerous and give them confidence that a vaccine is safe and effective.
The same is not true for anti-vaxxers: they win the debate by default if a sceptical public fails to take action and use the vaccine. This is why the term “vaccine hesitant” applies to people who are uncertain whether they will use a vaccine, as well as those who are sure they won’t. It is also why generating uncertainty and confusion is a powerful strategy for anti-vaxxers.
Anti-vaxxers have developed a sophisticated playbook for spreading uncertainty about a Covid vaccine and answering the concerns of vaccine hesitant people with anti-vaccine misinformation.
1. Establishing the anti-vaxx “master narrative” on Covid vaccines
Online anti-vaxxers have organised themselves around a “master narrative” comprised of three key messages: Covid is not dangerous, the vaccine is dangerous and vaccine advocates cannot be trusted.
2. Adapting the master narrative for online subcultures
Different elements of the online anti-vaccine movement adapt the master narrative to expand its reach. Alternative health entrepreneurs, conspiracy theorists, and accounts directed at parents or ethnic communities add their reach to the master narrative and tailor it for their audiences. In doing so, they add to the sum of uncertainty around Covid and the vaccine.
3. Offering spaces for vaccine-hesitant people
Anti-vaxxers harness the uncertainty that they create by offering online “answering spaces” where people with doubts about Covid or the vaccine can direct their questions. These spaces are often more easily accessible or more tailored to their audience’s interests than their pro-vaccine equivalents. People entering these spaces are met with answers that harden their doubts into vaccine hesitancy.
4. Converting the vaccine-hesitant into anti-vaxxers
The most established “answering spaces” identify vaccine hesitant individuals, convert them into committed anti-vaxxers and offer training to make them more effective activists.
5. Mitigating attacks on their online infrastructure
Leading online anti-vaxxers have adopted a “Lifeboat Strategy” to migrate their followers to “alt-tech” platforms such as Telegram and Parler in anticipation that their mainstream accounts will be removed. They have also developed techniques for undermining fact-checking and attempts to remove their misinformation.
Here are the leading anti-vaxxers to look out for
- Barbara Loe Fisher is the co-founder and president of the NVIC, which itself maintains a Facebook page with 209,000 followers.
- Joseph Mercola is an “alternative medicine entrepreneur” and a funder of the NVIC. Social media accounts operated by Mercola and his wife have 3.6 million followers.
- Del Bigtree is the founder of Informed Consent Action Network (ICAN) and produces an online anti-vaccine news show called The HighWire with 343,000 followers.6
- Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is the founder of Children’s Health Defence, another leading anti-vaccine charity. Kennedy commands a social media following of 1.3 million.
- Sherri Tenpenny operates a number of “alternative health” and anti-vaccine business ventures, supported by a network of social media accounts with 414,000 followers.
- Andrew Wakefield is the disgraced physician who “stood to profit” from claims linking the MMR jab to autism. Wakefield has since been struck off the UK General Medical Council’s medical register on charges of serious professional misconduct and produces anti-vaccine films that have proved to be influential on social media.
What can we do to stop vaccine misinformation?
In 2019, the CCDH published Don’t Feed The Trolls, a report on why people troll and a guide on what victims should do. In March, we adapted the understandings and recommendations for Covid misinformation, and the resulting guidance was endorsed by the UK Government’s Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Rt Hon Oliver Dowden MP, among others. All of society can more effectively counter anti-vaccine misinformation online:
1. Don’t engage with anti-vaccine misinformation online
Doing so only amplifies the content and shares it with your own followers, who may not otherwise ever be exposed to these falsehoods.
2. Remember that most people trust vaccines
The @ key has changed the world. People’s view of the world can be shaped by a small group’s decision to target them online. Similarly, social media algorithms promote divisive content in our newsfeeds rather than give a truthful view of what the public or even our own friendship groups are talking about. What you see online is not a true representation of reality, but posting that the vaccine is unpopular will make people think there must be a good reason why.
3. If you see someone you know posting misinformation about the vaccine, contact them privately
We listen to our friends and family more than we do strangers on social media, so it is always worth reaching out. Doing so privately doesn’t risk spreading the misinformation further, and it may be more likely to lead to a better outcome.
4. Spread pro-vaccine messages instead
Vaccine advocates should be louder about our support for vaccines. It is much more useful to share pro-vaccine content than to rebut anti-vaccine content.
5. Shout about getting vaccinated
Recipients of the vaccine should post about getting it – such a campaign could create authentic social proof and work against the anti-vaxxers’ aim of creating doubt around the safety of vaccines. “I’ve had the vaccine” Twibbons and Instagram filters could also help achieve this.
Read the full Anti-Vaxx Playbook here.
Imran Ahmed is the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate. Imran holds an MA in Social and Political Sciences from the University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Art. Find Imran on Twitter @Imi_Ahmed
The Center for Countering Digital Hate is a not-for-profit NGO that seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation. The CCDH can be found on Twitter @ccdhate