Why do tech giants allow anti-vaxx content? It’s the revenue, stupid

Convincing the public the Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective will be a daunting task

A person walks past the Pfizer Inc headquarters in New York on Wednesday. Even if there was universal public support for Covid-19 vaccines,managing their rollout was already going to be one of the most logistically complex public health operations in history. Photograph:  Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

A person walks past the Pfizer Inc headquarters in New York on Wednesday. Even if there was universal public support for Covid-19 vaccines,managing their rollout was already going to be one of the most logistically complex public health operations in history. Photograph: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

 

The Covid-19 vaccine intends to “eliminate large parts of humanity”. It will do this by sterilising all the women who get it, and altering our DNA to create a strain of genetically modified humans. “They” (it’s not quite clear who “they” are; it may be the same “they” who rigged the US election) will be “able to look at every aspect of what’s going on in our brains”, and can flick a remote kill switch, so they can “pinpoint target you with a satellite from orbit and activate an ‘allergic’ response”. Or they might insert a cancer gene into you. And if none of that works, they’ll just pop a microchip which pays you in cryptocurrency for good behaviour into your bloodstream.

None of this is true, at least not outside the fevered imaginations of vaccine opponents, or anti-vaxxers. But it should still frighten you; not the prospect of a kill switch in your DNA, but the knowledge that this information is out there on social media, and a lot of worried people are soaking it up.

Even if there was universal public support for Covid-19 vaccines – which there’s not, but more on that in a minute – managing their rollout was already going to be one of the most logistically complex public health operations in history.

It’s no reflection on the abilities of the vaccine taskforce chaired by Prof Brian MacCraith to express concerns about how the distribution of eight million vaccine vials, some of which which have to be maintained at minus 70 degrees, will go. Logistics have not been a consistently strong suit of Ireland’s health officials during the pandemic. Even so, the logistics may prove the easy bit. Convincing the public that it’s safe, effective and won’t turn you into Dolly the sheep is going to be a much more daunting task.

In a recent Red C poll, 18 per cent of people said they wouldn’t take the vaccine. That was before two adverse events were reported in NHS staff with severe allergies in the UK last week – rare incidents which are already being enthusiastically exploited online . Of course, not everyone who is sceptical or concerned is an anti-vaxxer. Many people are lurking somewhere in the middle, keen for all this to be over, cautious about the speed of vaccine development. The Government will need to hammer home the message that speed was due to more efficiency, not to any safety shortcuts.

Headstart

The communications work to be undertaken by the taskforce will need to hit the ground running, because the misinformation campaign has had a significant headstart. The first anti-vaccine campaign was against the smallpox inoculation in the 1850s. Then, scepticism ranged from general mistrust of science, suspicions about its efficacy, doubts about whether it was “Christian” because it was derived from animals, and the suggestion that vaccination violated an individual’s personal liberty.

The CCDH report calculated that the anti-vaccine movement is worth around $1 billion in annual revenues to tech giants

If this sounds familiar, it’s because the core themes of anti-vaxxers haven’t changed much, even if their methods have become more sophisticated. These days, it isn’t a movement so much as a colossal industry. A small but highly vocal minority are behind most of the misinformation online. Many are big-name sceptics in it for financial gain – they frequently pause in their anti-vaccination rants to plug their own brand of impressive-sounding nutri-holistic-naturopathic-snake-oil-woo-woo supplements. Recent analysis by the US Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) looked at 409 anti-vaxx accounts, with a total of 58 million followers. Of these, the 147 most popular added eight million new followers since 2019.

Facebook and YouTube say they don’t allow misinformation, false content or conspiracy theories on their platform. In October, Facebook took this a step further and banned ads telling people not to have the vaccine, but allowed unpaid posts to remain. Earlier this month, it said it would take down misinformation that posed a risk of “imminent harm” and label content that doesn’t reach that threshold.

Screaming headlines

But the dull, polite pop-up links to the HSE website and the gentle fact check labels are no match for the screaming headlines about ‘The video YouTube doesn’t want u to see!!!!” Facebook says groups and pages that spread false information are hidden in its search tool, but it took me all of nine seconds to find one such 27-minute video which claims, among other things, that the pandemic is “the greatest hoax in history”. One of those interviewed is UCD professor Dolores Cahill, chair of the Irish Freedom Party, who says Covid can be treated with vitamin D, C, zinc and “other very safe medicines”. 

Why do tech giants allow this content to stay on their platforms? The same reason they have never managed to clamp down effectively on other forms of misinformation or online harm. It’s the revenue, stupid. The CCDH report calculated that the anti-vaccine movement is worth around $1 billion in annual revenues to tech giants. If they wanted to, says science writer Dr David Robert Grimes, “social media companies could end the scourge of misinformation overnight.”

The Government’s pro-vaccine campaign will also have to play out online. Arming people with the facts to counter the kind of wild claims they might encounter is a far more effective strategy than trying to persuade them retrospectively that the vaccine isn’t designed to create a race of genetically modified humans. A longer-term solution is that the public needs to become much better at critical thinking. But we can’t afford to wait for that.

The battle against the Covid vaccine has been waging for months already. Now it’s time the counter-attack stepped up. “This pandemic isn’t even the one I’m worried about,” says Grimes. “I hope we learn some lessons for the next one.”

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