I’ll be getting vaccinated. I don’t yet know which vaccine it’ll be, and it won’t be soon (I’m well down the priority queue), but I’ll be rolling up my sleeve for the first Covid-19 vaccine that is offered to me.
If you’re going to get the jab too, tell your friends. If you want to understand why I felt the need to declare it and ask you to do likewise, read on, but I don’t mind if you stop here.
The modern anti-vaccine movement has been simmering away in the English-speaking world since Andrew Wakefield’s 1998 fraudulent paper linking the excellent MMR vaccine to Autism. This started a ball rolling that has since seen bogus suspicion thrown at all vaccines, reducing uptake leading to needless illness and death. Today, anti-vaccine leaders around the globe are more networked than ever, including across language barriers. And they have a plan.
People who are anti-vax or vaccine hesitant are just like you or I. They’re your brother, your mum, your nan, your neighbour, or that person you meet on the dog walk whose name you don’t know but having chatted with them for years it’s gotten to the point where it’s embarrassing to ask now. My point is that anti-vaxxers are just as worthy of kindness, respect, and compassion as you are – they’re certainly not stupid or selfish. If someone is spreading anti-vax ideas, it is because they have been convinced by them; they truly believe that vaccines are harmful, and so spreading that ‘truth’ is therefore good. It happens that they are incorrect and causing real-world harm, but very few anti-vax people are doing it for nefarious reasons. Remember that, always.
I also don’t want to imply that there cannot be legitimate worries about vaccines, but in countries with well-functioning regulatory systems, vaccines are thoroughly scrutinised before approval (and indefinitely beyond too). Taking Covid-19 as an example, concerns commonly surround the unprecedented speed of Covid-19 vaccine development – not an unreasonable worry on the face of it, but if you share that concern there are good explainers out there which should ease your mind. I currently have reservations about the Sputnik V vaccine, but that is because it was deployed for general use in some countries after testing on only 76 people, and Phase 3 trials (which typically precede approval) are only happening now.
Anti-Vaccine leaders and activists recognised early on that a Covid-19 vaccine will probably come along sooner or later, and they have been preparing for it. From the start, rumours were floated among and by them; the BBC even debunked some of those rumours back in the heady days of May 2020.
In October, the National Vaccine Information Center (don’t let the name fool you) held a private online conference with the world’s foremost anti-vax leaders. Thankfully for us, The Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) was able to get in, and so were able to give us a glimpse inside.
The CCDH has produced The Anti-Vax Playbook to tell us all about the conference proceedings, and the current thoughts and strategies revealed and discussed by the anti-vax movement’s leading lights. Best of all, the Playbook has practical advice for normal people to help counter the anti-vax schemes. The Playbook is around 50 pages long and is well worth a read, but I’ll summarise some of the key messages for us laypeople.
Covid-19 is seen as a golden opportunity to be exploited for the anti-vaccine cause, with opportunities to team up in common cause with opponents of lockdowns and facemasks. The pandemic has people feeling vulnerable, and more interested in knowing about vaccines than possibly at any other time in living memory. The anti-vax movement is driving a maximum effort to capitalise on this. The core ideas that Anti-Vax leaders are promoting for their followers to spread are, broadly, that we have nothing to fear from Covid-19, that the vaccine for Covid-19 will be dangerous, and that advocates of vaccination are untrustworthy and should be ignored.
The millions of unique anti-vax messages circulating vary immensely, but almost all promote at least one of these ideas. If a person can be convinced of any of these things, the others follow relatively easily.
Particular effort is being made to target anti-vax messages at demographics such as parents or minority ethnic communities. The Playbook specifically details a drive to promote Vaccine hesitancy in African American communities, including highlighting past grievously racist medical misdeeds in the same breath as Covid-19 vaccines, to imply equivalence or intent. This seems to me particularly cynical, piggybacking on the mood of Black Lives Matter to sow contempt for the seriousness of Covid-19, and distrust for its vaccines within communities that are often among the hardest hit by the virus and so have the most to gain from effective vaccines.
As skeptics – and as human beings – we are instinctively drawn to the idea that a good rebuttal can nip misinformation in the bud. Sadly, in digital spaces where algorithms promote “engagement”, direct rebuttal often backfires: rebuttals provoke comments and arguments, which lead to platforms prioritising or promoting the conversation, effectively amplifying the initial post and spreading its misinformation to more people. Fortunately, there are some tools and practices that can be effective in countering this:
- If someone you know is spreading misinformation, chat to them privately. This won’t spread the misinformation further, and humans still trust people they know and like – algorithms won’t change that any time soon. To help you out, the playbook concisely debunks the most prominent anti-vax arguments under each of the three main categories.
- Spread pro-vaccine messages yourself, in whatever ways you want. This can speak to people who are on the fence about vaccines. Fight fear with hope!
- Tell people you’re going to get the Covid-19 vaccine when you can. Going overboard and writing an article is optional.
Getting safe, effective vaccines into billions of arms globally is the only responsible route for us all to be able to hug our loved ones again. Tens of thousands of people have worked (and continue to work!) tirelessly on the vaccines part, and a further legion are now overcoming the next obstacles in making worldwide rollouts happen. We can all play an active role in helping achieve adequate Covid-19 vaccination coverage by limiting the ability of misplaced vaccine fear to dilute their success.