An Army of Volunteers Is Taking On Vaccine Disinformation Online


AS RESEARCHERS, PHARMA companies, and governments around the world are racing to make a vaccine against the pandemic coronavirus in record time, there’s a growing concern that many Americans won’t want it when it arrives. In a series of recent polls, only about half of US adults say they would get a Covid-19 vaccine, even though more than 1,000 people are still dying from the disease every day in the US. Some of those surveyed are rightly concerned about the perils of rushed science. But according to one poll conducted by Yahoo News/YouGov, more than a quarter of Americans would decline a shot in part because they believe Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates is trying to slip them a microchip.

Conspiracy theories thrive in times of great uncertainty, and the coronavirus pandemic has proven to be a petri dish for particularly harmful ones. This one can be traced back to May 4, when a little-known filmmaker named Mikki Willis posted a 26-minute video called Plandemic to Facebook, YouTube, Vimeo, and a designated website. It featured a discredited scientist describing a bizarre, unsubstantiated plot by global elites like Gates to use a vaccine against the virus to seize power. These ideas, hailing from many sources, had already been swirling on many parts of the internet and were congealing into a narrative involving Gates and microchips, but the Plandemic video became their biggest signal boost. According to an analysis by The New York Times, the video spent about three days incubating on Facebook pages dedicated to conspiracy theories and the anti-vaccine movement. Then, like any efficient pathogen, it went viral. Just a week after its release, the now widely debunked video had been viewed more than 8 million times.

But it didn’t have to be that way. So says Joe Smyser, CEO of the Public Good Projects, or PGP, a public health nonprofit that specializes in using social network analysis to implement large-scale behavioral change programs. His group has built online surveillance tools for tracking outbreaks of misinformation, disinformation, and downright conspiracies. He says they saw most of the sharing activity that fueled this particular theory’s eventual virality within the first 24 hours. “It was right there in the data,” he says. “We didn’t have to wait days to respond to it, because the outcome was predictable. What was lacking was coordination.”

Smyser wants to bring coordination to combating a growing anti-vaccine movement that contributed to a record outbreak of measles last year—the worst in four decades. This week, his organization is launching a vaccine advocacy campaign unlike any other before.

Calld Stronger, it aims to take the fight to anti-vaccine organizers where they’ve long had the upper hand: on social media. To do so, PGP plans to conscript the vast but largely silent majority of Americans who support vaccines into any army of keyboard warriors trained to block, hide, and report vaccine misinformation. (According to a recent Gallup poll, 84 percent of Americans say vaccinating children is important.) The effort is backed by a number of pro-immunization coalitions and the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, and has funding from BIO, the world’s largest biotechnology lobbying group. “We have this tradition in the US that vaccines are solely the domain of public health workers who are trained to not get into fights,” says Smyser. “I think that’s a very antiquated perspective, and it’s left those on the public health side completely outgunned in this new era of social media.”

For nearly as long as there have been vaccines, public health agencies have shied away from a combative approach with people who disagree with their recommendations. Vaccines are unequivocally one of the most transformative technologies in human history. Until vaccines eradicated smallpox, the disease killed millions of children each year—between 300 million to 500 million during the 20th century alone. In 1988, at the start of a worldwide vaccine campaign, approximately 350,000 children were paralyzed by polio each year. In 2018, the virus sickened just 33.

Up until the late 1990s, public health officials in the US were able to rely on this fact; vaccines spoke for themselves. They worked so well that diseases like measles began to fade from public consciousness. But that meant they didn’t seem so scary anymore. So when a now-discredited bit of fraudulent science that linked childhood vaccines with autism showed up in 1998, at the same time that news and socializing was starting to migrate online, doubts about vaccines found fallow ground and became the seeds of the modern anti-vaccination movement.

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