Anti-vaccine and anti-COVID Misinformation Trends

Pratik Dattani, Bridge India, Great Britain

Since 2016 we have seen the phenomenon of mis and disinformation firmly take root, evolve and proliferate, and increasingly cause real world harm. As the dissemination of misinformation becomes more complex and dynamic, the methods that governments across the world use to tackle it require a sophisticated response.

Finland’s tops a list of European countries deemed the most resilient to mis and disinformation, according to the Media Literacy Index compiled by the Open Society Institute in Sofia, helped by active efforts by its government to educate its citizens, including in schools.

In low- or middle-income countries, such as India or East Africa (two areas where I spend much of my time working with companies and governments), a large-scale education drive is difficult for two reasons. First, the level of digital literacy particularly in rural areas remains low. Second, the average citizen is new to the overabundance of unreliable information online.

We’ve seen globally that while some fake news will be on open platforms like Facebook and Twitter, shared between one and the other by ‘pollinators’, networks like WhatsApp, Parler, Telegram, MeWe, Gab and the dark web can be more pernicious sources of the misinformation. Groups on such platforms, often with hundreds of members, become echo chambers congenial to the spread of misinformation; potential propagators ready to embrace content supporting their common worldview.

For example, the theory that Covid-19 was a bioweapon released by China was popularised globally by the right-wing blog Zero Hedge but originated from a fringe Indian news site with links to Russian disinformation networks. Its virality illustrates a difficulty of monitoring the spread of disinformation, and the need for expert oversight to keep track of a volatile information ecosystem.

The US-based Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) analysed more than 812,000 Facebook and Twitter vaccine-related posts and found that 65% of anti-vaccine posts came from just twelve people, including Robert F Kennedy Jr, a nephew of the former US president.

The 5G coronavirus theory, which said that 5G masts caused Covid-19, dwarfed the bioweapon theory in the UK. The 5G theory spiked on the same day that UK lockdown measures were announced. Arsonists burnt down 80 mobile phone masts and recorded themselves harassing some telecoms engineers. Luckily, this was restricted just to the UK.

According to AI-driven fact-checker Logically.ai, one of the leading sources of disinformation on Covid-19 vaccines in the UK, former banker Brian Rose, started a lucrative fundraising campaign to build a “digital freedom platform” which raised over a million dollars. He is now running for Mayor of London.

When conspiracy narratives adapt to survive in different environments, we call this narrative localisation. Conspiracy theories tend to localise their narratives by discarding irrelevant elements and adding in more appropriate ones. There are two main forms of narrative localisation: geographic and demographic.

For example in France, recent research from BBC Monitoring found that considerable overlap between anti-vaccine and anti-establishment sentiment. The number of followers of pages sharing extreme anti-vaccine content in French grew ifrom 3.2m to nearly 4.1m likes last year.

Demographic localisation takes advantage of existing emotive subjects. Spanish-language disinformation during the 2020 US presidential election emphasised existing anti-abortion or anti-Communist concerns to increase the appeal of certain disinformation narratives. Indian lawyer Vibhor Anand adapted a US-based QAnon conspiracy to accuse Indian movie stars like Salman Khan of being involved in child trafficking.

Both of these types of narrative localisation are driven by the emergence of disinformation micro-influencers. These are users who have built a significant following among like-minded people who “follow” their profiles. They are not constrained by Facebook’s content policy for verified pages, so can carve out a niche for themselves.

As conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers and Covid-19 sceptics move from larger social media platforms to more closed-access forums, their views are further radicalised because they are no longer exposed to rational views. This makes policing more difficult. At all times, it is important to remember that fake news has real world impact. Fake news leads to the dissemination of false narratives, which is a direct threat to democratic processes.

At Bridge India, a think tank I sit on the Board of, we’ve initiated global dialogues on take news, and are constantly surprised by how it evolves, adapts and morphs. Tackling this menace involves coordination and collaboration between government, police and national security, but also activists, civil society and most importantly – each one of us.

 

Pratik Dattani is Managing Director of economic consultancy EPG, with offices in London, Bangalore and Uganda. He is additionally on the Board of Bridge India, a progressive public policy think tank.