Story at a glance
- The anti-vaccine movement began shifting online in recent years, and the move accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic.
- A new report shows that the anti-vaccine audience has grown by millions since 2019 on social media platforms Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and Instagram.
- As public health officials seek to reassure Americans on the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine, anti-vaccine efforts could prevent the country from reaching herd immunity.
People in the anti-vaccine movement began organizing against the COVID-19 vaccines even before one existed. Now, as the first doses of vaccines are trickling out, the movement is prepared to meet it online, according to a new report.
“Currently, anti-vaxxers are permitted to organize, recruit, and spread outright lies online, which threatens human life to millions of people. While the successful development of Covid vaccines was a cause for optimism for our ability to overcome coronavirus, that great work could be undone by this malignant anti-vaxx industry of propagandists,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate attended the Fifth International Public Conference on Vaccination and shared some of the information and remarks made by attendees and leaders in the report. Changing America has reached out to the National Vaccine Information Center, which held the conference in October, for comment.
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"Anti-vaxxers have developed a sophisticated playbook for spreading uncertainty about a [COVID-19] vaccine, converting vaccine-hesitant people into committed antivaxxers, and resisting attempts to remove their misinformation.," the report concluded, noting a "master narrative" for the situation at hand. "[COVID-19] is not dangerous, the vaccine is dangerous and vaccine advocates cannot be trusted."
COVID-19 is a fatal disease that has killed more than 1.7 million people across the world and sent millions of others to the hospital, out of work and even into poverty. But the anti-vaccination community continues to grow, according to the report, gaining more than 10 million followers over the last year, primarily on Instagram and YouTube, despite the platforms’ attempts to suppress misinformation. As tech companies are scrutinized for the content they allow, members of the anti-vaccination movement have learned to outsmart certain barriers and adapt their message to their audience. Some have moved onto platforms such as Telegram and Parler, although the report said they have had little success there, suggesting that deplatforming does work.
“All of the truths that we've been trying to broadcast for many, many years. There are people hearing it and the impact and those seeds are landing on very fertile ground," said Robert F. Kennedy Jr, the founder of anti-vaccine charity Children’s Health Defence.
The anti-vaccination movement is overwhelmingly white, and while there are Black, Indigenous and other people of color who are distrustful of vaccines, their reasons are different and rooted in historic injustice. With a Black American female scientist at the forefront of the COVID-19 vaccine development process and Black health workers taking the vaccine, public health experts are hoping to bridge that mistrust and encourage the community to take the vaccine.
Earlier this month, a poll by The Associated Press found that about half of all Americans are willing to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has said the United States could see herd immunity by late spring or early summer, but it will require more than 70 percent of the population to be vaccinated.
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