COVID-19 conspiracy theories – even recycled ones from previous epidemics – fill an information void, empower and impart belonging, and build vaccine hesitancy.
In the study, Understanding Vaccine Hesitancy, McGill University and University of Toronto researchers tracked Canadians’ views of the COVID-19 vaccine from April until the end of November. Sixty-five per cent of respondents said they intended to get a vaccine; 15 per cent were unwilling, and 20 per cent were unsure.
Of those who said no to the vaccine, 77 per cent cited safety and efficacy concerns. Yet, when presented with scenarios where the vaccine would be 90 per cent effective with minimal side effects, their views remained unchanged. Whereas the unsure group were more willing to get vaccinated after learning about the effectiveness and safety attributes of the vaccine.
After surveying 40,000 Canadians and reviewing 277 million social media posts on Twitter, Reddit and Facebook, the study concluded distrust of experts was the strongest determinant of vaccination hesitancy. Conspiratorial thinking came second.
People who lack social power are especially susceptible to conspiracy theory, said Suffolk University folklore professor Dr. Jon Lee, who specializes in conspiracies and narratives during epidemics. “It provides a voice for them that gives them power.”
Conspiracies can also convey identity and belonging, said Lee, who wrote the book An Epidemic of Rumors. Such as when Trump supporters banded together and stormed the U.S. capital buildings this month in an attempt to stop congress from ‘stealing’ the presidency from the candidate who lost the election.
“Believing in the conspiracy theory gives someone a sense that other people are believing the same thing I do,” said Lee.
Some of the most enduring conspiracies throughout history imply government deception, political intrigue and misconduct.
For Interim B.C. Liberal Leader Shirley Bond, truth, data, and transparency are the solutions.
“People need a real sense of certainty, they need to know that there’s a plan,” she said. “If you give people the information, it helps make the why clearer to them, and it helps inform their personal decision.”
A conspiracy theory can flourish in an information void.
“The distance between the time a pandemic arises and the time that science or medicine can give an answer is sometimes enormous, and the public wants information now, so conspiracy theories are an easy thing to turn to,” he said.
“When people can’t easily access reliable information around vaccines and when mistrust in actors and institutions related to vaccines is high, misinformation narratives rush in to fill the vacuum,” according to a report by First Draft, an international non-partisan network that helps build resilience against harmful disinformation on social media.
The challenge for information providers – reporters, fact checkers, governments, health bodies – is to find the data deficits, prioritize them, and act fast, the report stated.
“It's really hard for somebody who doesn't trust the government and the experts, to listen to what I'm going to say,” said National Advisory Committee on Immunization Chair Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, a pediatric infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Montreal’s Sainte-Justine Hospital.
A popular anti-vaccine conspiracy posits that Big Pharma, in collusion with government, is pushing the vaccines to make money.
“I have no ties with industry. The only reason I'm for the vaccine is that I look at the data,” said Quach-Thanh. “I think if we are able to stop this pandemic, it will be due to the vaccine.”
Getting ahead of a conspiracy isn't easy; stopping it after it’s out the door, is pretty much impossible.
"Fake news spreads more quickly and more easily than the virus, and can be just as dangerous," World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last February.
Conspiracies have been around as long as humans. In 1832, German writer Heinrich Heine was in Paris during the devastating cholera outbreak when rumours circulated that the death and sickness weren’t from a randomly transmitted disease but rather due to men who were deliberately poisoning the water and food sources.
“Men who seemed suspicious were searched and woe to them when any doubtful objects were found on them. The mob threw themselves like wild beasts or lunatics onto their victims.” wrote Heine. Ultimately, six suspected poisoners were literally torn apart by crowds before a newspaper article later set the facts straight: there was no poisoning, no poisoners; the deaths were all from cholera.
Lee called that the ‘deliberate infector’ narrative or, in modern lingo, the super spreader.
“People who purposely spread the disease either because they have it themselves, or because they're trying to kill other people,” he said.
Some narratives repeat from epidemic to epidemic, such as those with racist undertones, said Lee.
Asian people were implicated in SARS; with H1N1, it was Mexicans, and in 2020, it was the Wuhan or China Virus.
“We keep having these same things that we return to, over and over again,” Lee said. “It's almost like you take the narrative from a previous outbreak, take out the name of the disease, and just plug in the name of the (new) disease, and circulate.”
Fran@thegoatnews.ca / @FranYanor
Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Rocky Mountain Goat