The anti-vax movement has been a problematic part of public conversation for far too long. But, with the pandemic creating a sense of panic among the global population, the dangerous ideas that anti-vaccination activists are spreading – particularly through social media – about the risks behind the Covid-19 vaccine could be the biggest threat to overcoming this dark moment in history other than Covid-19 itself.
The Covid-19 pandemic has devastated the entire world and we’ve all been battling through lockdowns, wearing masks and following guidelines while we get the vaccine to as many people as possible – ideally at least roughly 80% of the world’s populace. But, in an ideal world whether there are magically four to five billion vaccines made available to everyone and we can put an end to the immunise everyone that’s willing to get the vaccine, we’d still have one problem.
If we find ourselves in a situation where 20% of the population (or whatever the threshold for heard immunity may be) are hesitant to take the Covid-19 vaccine due to the risks, the virus will continue to spread and millions more lives will be lost. And, although it’s a far-out idea right now to imagine billions of people rejecting the idea that vaccines are an effective way to eradicate communicable diseases, the rate at which misinformation is spreading is spiking due to the prevalence of people using social media as a source of reliable information.
And that’s not even to mention the risks that a surge in vaccine hesitancy poses in the form of a potential return of previously eradicated diseases such as smallpox or polio.
It’s important here to delineate the terms “vaccine hesitancy” and “anti-vax”. The former describes a person who is unsure about the efficacy and/or risks of receiving the Covid-19 vaccine – or other shots for that matter. Anti-vaxxers are people actively campaigning against vaccines and spreading misinformation, such as debunked conspiracy theories or even manufactured evidence.
The Anti-Vax Files produced a detailed podcast on How anti-vax went viral in the United Kingdom. The executive summary is pretty much that people are using social media more and more to make health related queries, particularly about Covid-19, the vaccines available and the risks associated with getting vaccinated. It’s the latter that has organically become a problem. The anti-vax movement, as we all know, is packed to the brim with either misguided fools or grifters and opportunists.
And the Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the anti-vax movement and taking it to a global level, as reported by The Washington Post, through Facebook groups, Instagram accounts and several other platforms.
The progression of this goes from vaccine hesitant people feeling fear over Covid-19 and the risks associated with getting the freshly developed Covid-19 vaccines, be it with two shots or just one. And after they’ve googled and/or done a quick social media search, joining groups on Facebook or watching YouTube videos to find out more about what we can all agree is critical information. Then the social media algorithms that are designed to keep you engaged recommend or prioritise posts into your feeds that have high levels of engagement.
These popular posts find their way onto more and more people’s feeds and suddenly they’re sucked into the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that seem so real, that convince them getting a vaccination is a bad idea, because it’s unsafe or because someone’s injecting you with some kind of 5G controlled microchip… or whatever the senseless conspiracy theory of the day is. And these people aren’t naive – this movement is very deliberate.
Donald and Melania Trump received the vaccine during the former US President’s final days in office, but didn’t publicize it in order to maintain their appeal among anti-vax activists. It’s more proof that this isn’t scientific, it’s political. And don’t get yourselves wrong, there are plenty of people out there lobbying against anti-vaxxers and fighting the spreading of misinformation. Medical experts are facing potential struggle to convince people of vaccine safety. Even worse is that the European pause for the AstraZeneca vaccine – where they stopped distribution of the vaccine due to cases of blood clots that could potentially have been a consequence of the vaccine, but found it to be safe after an investigation –plays right into anti-Vaxxers’ hands.
While it is absolutely necessary for vaccine distributions to be held up by potential associated risks, and, if you were sound of mind, you’d be encouraged by the fact that governments aren’t rushing through the process and are ensuring the the Covid-19 vaccine is safe and free of risks, you should feel all the more comforted by the ‘pause’ in Europe. But people are very easily misguided and the anti-vax movement is well-organised enough to turn that comfort into more fear.
We’re facing a genuine problem here. The anti-vaxxer is no longer some fringe movement on the Internet like its partner in idiocy, flat earth theory. It’s a movement that’s fast gathering momentum in a time of uncertainty, and if we don’t nip it in the bud, it has the potential become an existential threat to mankind.