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Social media misinformation is 'growing threat' to coronavirus vaccine efforts, survey shows

A new survey shows nearly one in six Britons say they'll refuse to get a coronavirus vaccine once it's available — and an even higher portion of US respondents say the same. The survey found differences between those who get their news from social media and those who rely on more traditional forms of media.

The World

Ever since the coronavirus first exploded across the planet, we've been told that we can take back control of our lives once we have a vaccine. It's the moment we're all waiting for.

Well, maybe not everybody. According to a new survey in the UK, nearly one in six Britons say they'll refuse to get a coronavirus vaccine once it's available.

The survey found differences between those who get the majority of their news from social media and those who rely on more traditional forms of media. People who depend on traditional media were nine percentage points more likely to say they would "definitely" or "probably" get the vaccine. The survey was commissioned by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a London-based nonprofit that studies the use of hate and misinformation to polarize society and undermine democracy.

The survey argues that Big Tech "powers an anti-vaxx ecosystem" and that the anti-vaccination movement is a "growing threat to the coronavirus vaccine." Since the start of the coronavirus crisis, the 150 largest anti-vaccination social media pages and YouTube channels tracked by the CCDH have collected about 8 million more followers. The majority of the followers are on Facebook, despite the social media platform's official stance opposing anti-vaccination content.

Imran Ahmed, the CCDH's chief executive officer, spoke to The World's host Carol Hills about how misinformation online, particularly on social media platforms, is contributing to vaccine hesitancy.

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Carol Hills: Imran, that's a staggering number of people who plan to avoid a vaccine. What were the reasons they gave? 

Imran Ahmed: Yes, we had one in six British people who said they definitely wouldn't or possibly wouldn't take a vaccine. We had another one in six who said that they were unsure. And so in total, three in 10 people were saying that they were vaccine-hesitant. And we actually carried out the same survey in the US and found it was even higher there. So, it was four in 10 in the United States. This was done by YouGov for us. And the reasons that people have are very varied. But what we know is that they've all swallowed misinformation of some kind. 

In your survey, did you ask people where they get their information, so you can delineate? Are they getting it from social media? Are they getting it from traditional media outlets, that kind of thing?

That's exactly what we did. In fact, we looked at their media consumption, and that was actually the strongest correlation we could find to a vaccine hesitancy... — people who use social media to gain information more than traditional media were much more likely not to want to vaccinate...and what's been growing in a period in which most of us have been staying at home more than usual. We're exposed to a lot more misinformation online. 

Are you saying that a lot of the misinformation comes from two friends in touch with each other and they say, "Oh, I saw an article here, read this, and it says X, Y, Z." Or are you thinking intentional misinformation put out on social media? 

Well, quite often when you do have peer-to-peer transmission...the original sources are a small number of highly active, committed individuals who may be motivated because of ideology. They may be motivated because they are trying to make a buck out of it. And it's so sad to imagine that in this crisis, a lot of hucksters, snake oil salesmen, have thought to themselves, well, you know what? This is a great opportunity for me to sell whatever crazy remedy I've come up with today. There are two pandemics occurring simultaneously — one is biological and that's the coronavirus. The second is social and that's misinformation. 

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I'm curious. Were you able to tell the basic demographics of the people who answered the survey? 

We did. I mean, and in the United States, for example, we found that geographically it was pretty widespread. We did find a small age coefficient to misinformation so that older people were slightly more likely to believe it. But again, the strongest correlation we found was behavior, as we so often do with social phenomena, it's about attitudes and behaviors that we find the real differentiation. 

What's your sense of why the anti-vaxxer movement has become so popular? 

Well, I think that they've been very fast exploiting this crisis, the coronavirus crisis. They have one job and they're very good at doing it, which is persuading people not to trust the science. And they'll use an opportunity like coronavirus, in which, of course, there is a lot of uncertainty and people are scared. And so, of course, you've got these two factors — uncertainty and fear — which in combination are really good at driving conspiracy theory take-up. 

Next time I'm online and I see someone posting an anti-vaccination piece about COVID-19, what should I do? 

Well, first of all, social media platforms rely on one measure to decide whether or not to give something prominence, and that's engagement. So the first thing to do is to ignore the bad information, to block the person that's been sending it and then to go and find some good information, something from the WHO [World Health Organization] or from a reputable health authority and to spread that instead. It’s actually only by outweighing the bad information with good information that we can have a healthier information ecosystem. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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