Stop the misinformation about the COIVID-19 vaccine now

In an information vacuum, all kinds of thoughts flourish.

image: WION

Canadians generally favour vaccines but doubts persist. In a recent survey, 15 per cent of Canadians and 20 per cent of Americans said they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available.

Why would you not get vaccinated against a deadly disease? Let’s count the reasons.

Some of it is simply “needle fear.” A study published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing found that 16 per cent of adult patients avoided the flu shot because of needle fear (Globe and Mail, May 22, 2020).

Then there is the fear from rushing to produce the vaccine. Political pressure is being put on researchers in the U.S. and China to come up with the first COVID-19 vaccine. Will such a vaccine be thoroughly tested for efficacy and long-term side effects?

There is the politics of choice: “Why should I be forced to get a vaccination if I don’t want to?” Well, public health is not a personal choice. In a universal health care system like we have in Canada, we all pay for the careless choices of individuals.

The psychology of “fear transfer” is a factor. Once we have exhausted our fears about the actual virus, fear of the vaccine becomes the greater threat.

In the U.S., presidential election politics are at play. President Trump has whipped up anti-lockdown sentiments in states that are reluctant to open the economy too quickly which would result in more COVID-19 deaths. Anti-lockdown protestors have also been pushing the anti-vaxx message.

Some Canadians are reluctant to have vaccinations too but they are not necessarily anti-vaxxers. They just want more valid information. In the absence of valid information from reliable sources, parents will turn to dubious sources such as those found on Facebook.

Anti-vaxxers tend to be concentrated in private or religious schools, or in home-schooling, and they live in a rural area or a community with a small to medium-sized population.

Another source of reluctance is irrational reasoning. “Why should I get a vaccination for a disease that doesn’t exist?” Of course, the disease, such as measles, has been suppressed because of vaccinations. Without vaccinations, they come back.

More wishful thinking is that: “if enough people are exposed to the COVID-19 virus, they will develop herd immunity and vaccinations won’t be required.” The problem is that we don’t know whether exposure to the virus develops resistance or for how long.

A federal agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, has recently funded research into the psychological factors of the pandemic. Researchers will monitor social media for concerns and for conspiracy theories being raised about the pandemic, including those about a future vaccine.

The researchers, Eve Dubé, of Laval University and Steven Taylor of The University of British Columbia argue that rational, science-based messaging about the vaccine needs to begin early, especially at a time when the public is saturated with health information about the pandemic.

“It is important to be pro-active, instead of leaving an empty space for vaccine critics to fill the information void,” said Eve Dubé, “Once the trust in vaccination is weakened, we are vulnerable to crisis.”

Reliable messaging about the COVID-19 vaccine has to start now.

How Russia uses social media to stir conflict

Russian President Vladimir Putin has unleashed an army of trolls and bots. His bad intentions go beyond revenge and interference in U.S. elections. Recently, postings from his motley crew have resulted in deaths due to a measles outbreak in Europe.

image: Rantt

Putin never forgave Hillary Clinton for the mass protests against his government in 2011. He was convinced that Clinton was seeking a “regime change” in Russia. Hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email server threw the Clinton campaign into disarray. Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Moscow until early 2014, commented: “One could speculate that this is his moment for payback.”

Canada is not immune. Putin doesn’t like Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland. As a reporter, she called him an authoritarian, an autocrat and “really dangerous.” Months after she became minister, Putin banned her from Russia. Canadians have been targeted through Facebook. Russian trolls befriend unsuspecting users to spread their propaganda.

To be clear, I like Facebook and use it daily but I’m very careful about friend requests. I personally know most of my contacts and others are friends of people I trust. But Facebook admits that hundreds of millions of others have been sucked into the Russian vortex. If you’re not sure, check your Facebook account here for any Russian agents. If the box is empty, it doesn’t mean that you weren’t exposed, it just means that you didn’t engage them.

The motive of Russian trolls is to agitate and divide countries with the hope that governments will be thrown into chaos. That’s easily done in the U.S. with a president that refuses to admit what everyone knows: the Russians interfered in his election.

Russian trolls are responsible for the public health misinformation that led to a measles outbreak in Europe this summer where cases doubled over 2017 and 37 people died.

Heidi Larson, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told CBC Radio’s The Current about her research. Here’s the exchange between CBC host Piya Chattopadhyay and Dr. Larson:

Piya: “And specifically I want to ask you about Facebook because as you know Facebook has been accused of contributing to misinformation — in other arenas, in other contexts. How has Facebook contributed to misinformation about vaccines?

Heidi: Oh I think it has contributed significantly. But these new tools: social media, Facebook, they are organizational tools, they’re not just about spreading information — they’re empowering groups of people not even geographically local across different locations to organize into groups. And that kind of organizational power that these tools have given some of these anti-sentiments is I think as concerning as the negative sentiments.”

The malicious posts have been traced back to the Russian troll farm, Internet Research Agency.

Researchers found that trolls were 22 more likely to tweet using a hashtag referencing vaccines than the average user. Echo chambers embolden Facebook users into thinking their bizarre thoughts are valid. It turns out that when just 25 per cent of people in your social media network are against vaccination, it can delay or prevent vaccination –even for those who previously were ready to vaccinate their children.

Facebook and Twitter are working remove agents who want to undermine democracy. Meanwhile, we need to be vigilant.