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The Covid-19 misinformation challenge

Vivienne Moxham-Hall / Jan 2021

Image: Shutterstock

When the UK Government announced the approval of the Pfizer vaccine late last year, there was a collective glimmer of hope that the end of this pandemic was within reach. The UK and the EU have now approved administration and roll-out of the vaccine, as well as another one produced by Moderna, and the Oxford vaccine has been submitted for EU approval. These all increase the capacity for large-scale protection against the virus.

However, there is still some way to go before our dreams of returning normality come true. Herd immunity is developed when a certain percentage of the population is immune to a disease and is essential for the slowing or stopping of COVID-19 spread. Preliminary estimates for COVID-19 suggest herd immunity may be achieved when around 67% of the population have immunity, although this is dependent on the infectiousness of the disease, location and population density. However this takes time, the World Health Organisation has already stated that it will not be possible to achieve herd immunity in 2021. Achieving herd immunity is also complicated by increasing rates of vaccine hesitancy.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents a unique challenge. This is in part due to an unprecedented amount of misinformation spreading across social media platforms as a result of heightened fear, uncertainty and a lack of knowledge surrounding the novel virus. For example, polling we conducted at the Policy Institute with Ipsos MORI between 20 and 24 November asked whether a number of statements about a COVID-19 vaccine were true or false. 42% of respondents did not know whether a COVID-19 vaccine might cause autism in children, and 48% did not know if it might result in infertility.

Conspiracy mentality and exposure to conspiracies are associated with decreased vaccine trust and compliance. Poland and France are among the most sceptical of a potential COVID-19 vaccine, with 56% and 59% respectively stating that they would take the vaccine, while around 79% of Australians and Brits were willing to take the vaccine. Our polling found that the UK public are much more likely to think conspiracy theories about a COVID-19 vaccine are false, but a notable minority say they believe them, and social media users and younger people are particularly inclined to think such claims are true. One in seven (14%) believe the real purpose of a mass vaccination programme against coronavirus is simply to track and control the population. This rises to a quarter (27%) of 16- to 24-year-olds. People who get a great deal or fair amount of information on COVID-19 from WhatsApp (42%) and YouTube (39%) are around three times as likely to believe this.

People engaging with COVID-19 information primarily from platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp are more likely to have more positive perception of people who discourage others from getting a vaccination. Up to one in nine (11%) respondents primarily using Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp say that those discouraging others from getting vaccinated are smart – around twice as many as the proportion of the UK public overall who say the same (5%). And one in five (19%) Facebook and YouTube users say they respect people who would refuse a vaccine – compared with one in eight (13%) among the population.

Public health programmes now are not only about developing safe and effective vaccines, but about effectively communicating and educating the broader public and especially younger people about vaccination development and effectiveness. This is one way to pre-empt misinformation which can go viral across social media platforms. It is also about reminding people that the vaccination is not just for them – while an individual risk factor for COVID-19 may be low, if everyone who was at low risk refused to be vaccinated, the whole programme would be compromised.

Vaccination is about community health and achieving the required level of coverage will take a huge communal effort. Part of this effort will involve combatting misinformation wherever it appears – not just online, but also when we hear unfounded claims from family and friends. Changing people’s minds is never easy, but we can’t be complacent when the stakes are so high.

 

Vivienne Moxham-Hall

Vivienne Moxham-Hall

January 2021

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