New research shows the bigger threat to public trust in a Covid-19 vaccine comes from smaller, better-connected Facebook groups.
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A nurse administers China’s Sinovac vaccine, a potential vaccine for Covid-19, to a volunteer at São Lucas Hospital in Porto Alegre, Brazil, on Aug. 8.Diego Vara.
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Vaccination proponents and misinformation researchers had been waiting for years for Facebook to take action against the biggest and most influential anti-vaccination pages.
So it was with some trepidation that they welcomed the news that the social network last week had banned some of the most popular and prolific anti-vaccination accounts — pages that had also pushed Covid-19 vaccination misinformation to millions of people.
Their impact, however, lives on. While researchers of extremism and public health advocates see the removal of the largest anti-vaccination accounts as mostly positive, new research shows the bigger threat to public trust in a Covid-19 vaccine comes from smaller, better-connected Facebook groups that gravitated to anti-vaccination messaging in recent months.
“What we’re seeing play out with Covid is what was already in the system,” Neil Johnson, a physicist at George Washington University who studies online extremism, said. “It was primed for that at the end of 2019.”
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With many Covid-19 vaccines in the works, health officials have warned that public adoption will be crucial to ensure that enough of the population is immunized to stop the spread of the virus. Experts say there isn’t an exact threshold for the percentage of people that need to get vaccinated to stop the virus’ spread, but it is expected to be at least 60 percent of the population.
Only 42 percent of Americans said “yes” to whether they’d get a Covid-19 vaccine when it becomes available, according to a YouGov poll released in August. A poll from the Pew Research Center published in September found a significant decline from May to September in people who said they would get the vaccine if it were immediately available.
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Johnson and a team of researchers published a paper in Nature in May that suggested the anti-vaccination movement bore a big responsibility for such hesitancy. It showed that although membership in online anti-vaccination groups was smaller than in pro-vaccination groups, there were more of them, their messages were more diverse, emotive and often persuading, and they were better at spreading those messages outside their groups, meaning they were able to reach more people.
Research from a forthcoming paper from Johnson and his team, currently in review for publication, shows members of communities previously considered unrelated or “undecided” on vaccines — groups for pet lovers, parent school groups, yoga fans and foodies, for instance — are increasingly connecting with the anti-vaccination movement.
While the anti-vaccination activists’ favored platform, Facebook, has taken a number of steps recently to limit the reach of anti-vaccine content, the movement has thrived during the pandemic — a success largely due to a pivot toward Covid-19 misinformation and a communication strategy that’s allowed the anti-vaccination message to circumvent platforms’ policy enforcement and reach users outside its network.
Facebook spokesperson Andrea Vallone said in an emailed statement that the company has worked to connect people with accurate information about vaccines and banned misleading ads.
“We also continue to remove misinformation about COVID-19 that could lead to imminent physical harm and direct people to our COVID information Center, which is available in 189 countries,” she said.
A report by the London-based nonprofit organization Center for Countering Digital Hate found that the anti-vaccination movement gained about 8 million followers since 2019. Conspiracy theories about a coming Covid-19 vaccine have flooded social media, particularly on Instagram and Facebook, according to a new report from First Draft, a global nonprofit organization that researches online misinformation.
Such conspiracy theories (which purported the vaccine to be a clever cover for various forms of population control by a government “deep state,” private philanthropists or even Satan) weren’t limited to anti-vaccine fringe groups, First Draft reported, but were resonating with outside networks. Disparate communities including Libertarian, New Age, QAnon and anti-government groups, as well as more mainstream communities, seem to be uniting around the opposition to a coming Covid-19 vaccine.
Facebook removed the page for the online anti-vaccination show The HighWire this month for violating policies on “misinformation that could cause physical harm,” the company said. YouTube had removed the show’s channel in July after reports that host Del Bigtree was downplaying the severity of the coronavirus pandemic on his show and suggesting viewers intentionally expose themselves to Covid-19.