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The Covid-19 and other vaccines: Where we’re failing to provide the right information

This is a chapter from a report into vaccine narratives on social media, Under the surface: Covid-19 vaccine narratives, misinformation and data deficits on social media.

Data deficits and oversupply: an information market failure

Our analysis of the most influential online vaccine conversations revealed an environment cluttered with a confusing patchwork of harmful narratives and data deficits related to vaccines in general and the Covid-19 vaccine in particular.

Not only is this environment fertile for the organic spread of misleading content around a Covid-19 vaccine, but it is also full of vulnerabilities that can be exploited by malicious actors.

Here we explain what vaccine data deficits are, highlight ones that are currently particularly susceptible to misinformation as well as some of the tactics that are being used to suppress confidence in vaccines.

Infographic showing topics, narratives and examples of vaccine posts during Summer 2020, from the report Under the surface.

There are two main types of market failure within the information industry: data deficits and data oversupply. A data deficit is the negative difference between the level of supply of accurate and reliable information about a given topic and the level of demand for it. Low supply may occur because credible information is evolving, because it isn’t reaching people effectively or because it doesn’t exist.

Rather than a void or gap, high demand and low supply result in a data deficit — a lack of credible information, where results exist but they are misleading, confusing, false or even harmful.

These deficits are not the result of deliberate actions from bad actors. In fact, they typically occur when quality information providers are unaware of the demand for information on a given topic or are unable to provide the information in an effective, compelling manner. However, bad actors can exploit these deficits, filling them with content meant to deceive or that fits their agenda.

Conversely, a data or informational oversupply is a situation where people are overloaded with information on a given topic. The sheer quantity of information, as well as its technically complex or seemingly contradictory nature, often leads to confusion and ultimately news avoidance.

Here are some of the key data deficits and surpluses identified within the most influential vaccine-related online conversations.

 

mRNA technology and DNA alteration

References to the novel messenger Ribonucleic acid vaccine technology and DNA appeared in a combined 4 per cent of posts in English and French. Most tellingly, only two of these posts centered around the development of vaccines, while more than 85 per cent were linked to safety, “political and economic motives” or “conspiracy theories.” The types of claims and narratives within these topics, as well as the complete absence of neutral, fact-based, informative posts, underlined the significance of this data deficit. Certain posts claimed Moderna’s new potential Covid-19 vaccine will change people’s DNA, and some posts presented the mRNA vaccine as the definitive future Covid-19 vaccine or discredited any future Covid-19 vaccine altogether. Others even linked Moderna’s vaccine and mRNA vaccines generally to targeted depopulation efforts or malign human engineering programs. While some of the highest-performing posts related to mRNA technology were labeled as false or misleading by fact-checking organizations, the time delays and limited reach associated with these actions mean quality proactive reporting and messaging around this topic are urgently needed.

 

GMOs and aluminium

Similar dynamics were observed for the topics of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and aluminium in relation to vaccines: Among the 29 posts mentioning either GMOs or aluminium, only one post was identified as supplying important contextual information on either topic. By contrast, posts suggesting that vaccines were unsafe based on their links to GMOs and aluminium thrived in English, and to an even greater extent in Francophone language communities.

 

Vaccine development and foreign propaganda narratives

There is a lack of clear, reliable information detailing the steps involved in the vaccine development process, the scientific norms associated with it and what ultimately constitutes a “safe” vaccine. This deficit presents an opportunity for actors wishing to circumvent these established norms and procedures to bypass scrutiny. For example, numerous unverified accounts presenting themselves as news sources or health specialists reported the unveiling of the Russian vaccine “Sputnik V” in an uncritically positive and largely decontextualized manner. These reports failed to highlight the fact that the vaccine was approved before it had gone through large-scale Phase 3 trials, which provoked widespread concern and objections from the scientific community.[1] These kinds of reports were especially noticeable in Francophone African Instagram and Latin American Facebook communities. At the same time, an attempt to undermine the credibility of Western vaccine development with fabricated information from sources dedicated to the amplification of foreign actors’ narratives was identified among the most influential French posts.[2] Coincidentally, this disinformation narrative had also gained traction across other language communities, and one of its versions exploited the mRNA vaccine technology data deficit detailed here.

 

Legal impunity for pharmaceutical companies

Transparent information, especially in the context of the United States, that unpacks 1) what indemnity is 2) why pharmaceutical companies receive it and 3) what this reverse incentive structure means for the production of vaccines is scarce. This data deficit was often filled by misleading narratives claiming this indemnity signified not only public organizations’ prioritizing of vested interests over public health, but also the idea that vaccines are dangerous or even lethal.

 

An oversupply of Covid-19 vaccine trial coverage

There is an oversupply of reporting on vaccine development, including the myriad vaccines being produced, which phase of trials they are in, and the different countries and companies involved in their creation, but little in the way of reporting that contextualizes or makes sense of this “race” and the flurry of international vaccine development.[3] Furthermore, much of the reporting on vaccine development is based solely on press releases by pharmaceutical companies and is subject to “pharma spin.” This deluge of reporting — much of which may be biased toward the interests of pharmaceutical companies — leaves many more questions than answers, creating more spaces vulnerable to speculation and misinformation.

 

The illusion of the ‘silver bullet’

Too many people on social media take the discovery of a successful Covid-19 vaccine to mean an end to the current crisis. We know that a vaccine will not be a “silver bullet”[4] and we know that we may never return to “normalcy.” Yet there is little in the way of information highlighting this fact and explaining how vaccines will ultimately be part of a broader plan to control Covid-19 so that we can return to a relatively normal existence.

 

Alternative medicine and ‘New Age’ spirituality

The presence of New Age spirituality and natural medicine accounts peddling the idea that a healthy immune system — achieved through one of the many practices encouraged by these sources, such as yoga, meditation or vitamin D — can protect you from disease far outstrips authoritative information detailing how this is misleading. These accounts and posts could be a real cause for concern given their protean nature; they use arguments highlighting the importance of the individual and individual ownership of one’s own immune system and health to attack the efficacy of vaccines, as well as the idea of mandatory vaccines, which falls under the topic of “liberty and freedom.”

 

Poliomyelitis

Poliomyelitis, often referred to as polio, was the second-most mentioned disease for which vaccines have been developed, with only six fewer mentions than the flu across all posts collected. Certain posts mentioned polio vaccination campaigns to highlight the benefits of vaccines, with some even suggesting that they should give us hope for the fight against Covid-19. However, many other highly interacted-with posts capitalized on the data deficit regarding the negative effects of an oral form of a polio vaccine. Several French- and English-language posts framed the World Health Organization as having been “forced to admit” the existence of adverse effects caused by the oral polio vaccine, thereby portraying the institution as untrustworthy. Bill Gates’ financial links to the vaccine were also pointed out by some to suggest a Gates-sponsored Covid-19 vaccine will also be unsafe. Clear, proactive and consistent messaging is needed to prevent the topic of poliomyelitis, and the vaccines to combat it, from developing into an even greater data deficit. Otherwise, the topic could be instrumentalized as part of wider anti-vaccination agendas aimed at undermining public health institutions and portraying all vaccines as dangerous.

 

Tactics used to take advantage of the data deficits

The data deficits mentioned here highlight how the online vaccine information ecosystem is pockmarked with vulnerabilities and weak spots. Where there is a data deficit, there will likely be actors spreading mis- and disinformation. Here we outline the different ways or tactics implemented among the posts we coded to facilitate the spread of misinformation.

 

Headline laundering

The laundering of news headlines related to vaccines by particular groups online to fit their own vaccine-skeptic agenda. News articles providing negative or ambiguous coverage of vaccines, especially where headlines might not be telling the whole story, are recycled within anti-vax communities and spun to fit their agenda.

 

The rehashing of old misinformation tropes

Old or “zombie” vaccine misinformation content continues to be shared by highly followed anti-vaccination sources. Examples include the purported link between the MMR vaccines and autism, the guinea pig or “lab rat” narrative to talk about Africans involved in vaccine development, and the role of vaccines as part of wider conspiracies, such as the imposition of totalitarian systems aided by mass population tracking capabilities, for example.

 

Highly adaptive disinformation: the chameleon effect

The highly adaptive nature of anti-vaccination networks proved particularly noticeable through the adaptation of old misinformation narratives to the current context of the Covid-19 pandemic. For example, the general notion that vaccines aren’t safe was levied through false claims that the flu vaccine is associated with a higher likelihood of contracting Covid-19 and thus higher likelihood of death.[5] Similarly, one of the prominent anti-vaccination narratives based on individual liberty arguments in North American communities referenced the imposition of mask-wearing rules in public spaces to suggest the same will soon be applied to vaccine uptake. This trend was equally noticeable in regard to narratives linking vaccines to wider conspiracies, as certain “transhumanism” conspiracy theories included multiple references to the coronavirus pandemic in addition to vaccines. Finally, the narrative that the most public proponents of vaccines are corrupt or don’t vaccinate their own children was applied to current political actors such as Marine Le Pen, while an extract from a vaccine misinformation article was falsely framed as a Melania Trump quote.

 

Graphic, emotive content and long-form videos

The well-documented use of graphic, emotive visual content by anti-vaccination groups to portray vaccines as dangerous remains a defining feature of anti-vaccine discourse. Children are often used to add even more emotional bite to these messages. The emotions resulting from any kind of harm done to children, for example, make this strategy particularly effective, as evidenced by QAnon’s hijacking of the “saveourchildren” hashtag.[6] Moreover, the prevalence of superior video production quality and long-form vlog-style videos among the top most interactedwith Facebook and Instagram posts was noticeable. For example, more than 15 per cent of Francophone Facebook posts included a native video; many of these advanced misleading anti-vaccination and conspiratorial narratives. Inevitably, long-form videos present a difficult practical challenge for fact-checking organizations in the same way that has made YouTube something of a blind spot for misinformation monitoring.

This is a chapter from the report Under the surface: Covid-19 vaccine narratives, misinformation and data deficits on social media. For more insights, read the full report.

 

Endnotes

[1] Callaway, E. (2020, August 11). Russia’s fast-track coronavirus vaccine draws outrage over safetyRussia’s fast-track coronavirus vaccine draws outrage over safety: The immunization is the first approved for widespread use but could be dangerous because it hasn’t been tested in large trials, say researchers. Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-02386-2

[2] Thomas E., Zhang A. & Currey, E. COVID-19 Disinformation and Social Media Manipulation: Pro-Russian vaccine politics drives new disinformation narratives. Australian Strategic Policy Institute & International Cyber Policy Center. https://s3-ap-southeast-2.amazonaws.com/ad-aspi/2020-08/ Proper cent20Russianper cent20vaccineper cent20politics. pdf?vMuk2m7DlWP_GG25A86MqWZ_bg_jxlXL=

[3] Bastian, H. (2020, July 21). Covid-19 Vaccines With ‘Minor Side Effects’ Could Still Be Pretty Bad: The risk of nasty side effects in the Moderna and Oxford trials should be made clear now, before it ends up as fodder for the skeptics. Wired. https://www.wired.com/story/covid-19-vaccines-with-minor-sideeffects-could-still-be-pretty-bad/

[4] Wamsley, L. (2020, August 3). WHO Chief Warns ‘There Might Never Be’ A Silver Bullet For Coronavirus. NPR. https://www.npr.org/sections/ coronavirus-live-updates/2020/08/03/898619556/who-chief-warns-theremight-never-be-a-silver-bullet-for-coronavirus

[5] Mansour, J. (2020, October 1). Non, il n’est pas prouvé que le vaccin contre la grippe augmenterait le risque d’attraper le Covid-19: Des articles partagés sur Facebook prétendent qu’une personne vaccinée contre la grippe saisonnière aurait 36 % de chances de plus d’être infectée, en citant une étude américaine. C’est faux. Le Monde.https://www.lemonde. fr/les-decodeurs/article/2020/10/01/non-il-n-est-pas-prouve-quele-vaccin-contre-la-grippe-augmenterait-le-risque-d-attraper-lecovid-19_6054421_4355770.html

[6] Zadrozny, B. & Collins, B. QAnon looms behind nationwide rallies and viral #SavetheChildren hashtags: Rallies planned on Facebook by QAnon supporters or sympathizers that have brought the conspiracy theory offline and into the town squares of dozens of cities in recent weeks. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/QAnon-looms-behindnationwide-rallies-viral-hashtags-n1237722