Abbas Panjwani, a fact checker at Full Fact, says it is too early to understand how much online misinformation is fueling vaccine hesitancy. “However, it has big audiences. It has a lot of shares,” he says.
Conspiracies are finding fertile territory among ethnic minority groups, which have long-standing grievances about racism and medical inequality.
“I don’t trust the Government,” said Lisa*, a 45-year-old support worker, passing Croydon hospital, who has already declined her vaccine. “I’ve heard a lot of conspiracy theories,” she says, describing how six or seven warnings about the vaccine arrive every day over WhatsApp.
“Sometimes I don’t have time to watch or read them all.”
Researchers say the significance of encrypted apps like WhatsApp are making the phenomenon harder to track and understand. “WhatsApp is popular for everyone but it’s very popular for ethnic minority communities,” says Panjwani.
To study the opaque platform, groups like Full Fact have to rely on messages that are either screenshotted or forwarded to them. There’s no search function. “Our ability to see what sort of misinformation is out there and affecting certain communities is limited,” he says.
WhatsApp has tried to crack down on chain messages. After rumours spread by WhatsApp chains were linked to killings and lynching attempts in India, in 2019 the Facebook-owned company imposed global restrictions on forwarding, meaning a message forwarded five times from its original sender would be appear with a “Forwarded many times” labels.
However, still the misinformation keeps coming. Lisa* says some messages falsely claim the Government is trying to eradicate the current financial system so it can be replaced by Bitcoin; others mistakenly that artificial intelligence has made the large workforce redundant so the Government is attempting to use the vaccine as an attempt to wipe them out.
There is no evidence for any of the theories Lisa cites. But phenomenons like the pro-Trump QAnon movement demonstrate how even far-fetched ideas with no basis in reality can snowball online, eventually spiralling into violence.
Like QAnon, the anti-vaccination content spreading in Britain also features distortions that weave together misinformation and truth, making it difficult to disentangle the two.
In June, a speech by Matt Hancock triggered suspicion online after the health secretary suggested BAME groups could be prioritised for the vaccine once it had been approved by regulators, due to multiple studies showing these groups had been badly affected by the virus.
Credit: Source link