Fighting the ‘Infodemic’ – changing people’s personal truths

Jack Blowers

A recent report from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate has revealed 31 million people follow anti-vaxxer groups on Facebook and a further 17 million are subscribed to equivalent YouTube channels – whose videos are likely viewed and shared by many more. Currently, despite the apparent success of the UK vaccination program, there has been a lack of uptake by health-care workers, the elderly in nursing homes and from the BAME community (the severity of which was recently highlighted by direct pleas from BAME politicians across the political spectrum). Although perpetrated by a minority (albeit a vocal one), the spread of false information regarding vaccines against SARS-CoV-2 has the real potential to prolong the crisis we find ourselves in – especially for the lower efficacy vaccines, sizeable uptake is required to achieve the aim of herd immunity. If we are even to begin to try and effectively combat the spread of misinformation, we need to understand the causes of such conspiracy theories and how best to argue for an ‘alternative truth’.

Over the past week I have spent an embarrassing amount of time trawling through anti-vaxxer forums and watching all manner of anti-vaxxer videos, from Facebook comment sections and YouTube channels (so much so I’m now probably on some government watch list). Over these lost hours, what has become clear is that this is a ‘personal truth’ to many, a truth that remains a truth to someone no matter the evidence to the contrary.

The phrase ‘anti-vaxxer’ is used interchangeably between a diverse array of opinions which for simplicity and brevity I’ll divide into two distinct groups. The largest of these consists of people who are concerned at the speed at which these vaccines have been developed and deployed and are therefore suspicious they have not been tested enough. They’ve have had other vaccines in the past, but are adamant they won’t be taking this one, not yet anyway – “I don’t know what’s in it” is a phrase I have heard from far too many of my relatives. Although this group is still of concern, as time passes and the more people are vaccinated, the more likely they are to eventually have one – a trend that we are already seeing. The second group is that of your classic, almost cartoon like, conspiracy theories. The many theories include the modification of our DNA by the vaccines, the insertion of microchips and the rise of the Lord High Emperor Bill Gates… or Jeff Bezos… or whoever was being accused that week. Although the first category is still of concern, it is the second that we should be very worried about and must effectively combat, with the aim of preventing people moving from the sceptical first category to the far more dangerous second.

I think what surprised me the most about that second group, is that many of the posts and videos used actual scientific papers, vaccine labels and primary literature to make their points. One video that stuck with me was a woman reading the label on a box of AstraZeneca vaccines and finding the word ‘recombinant’, she then subsequently went to the paper detailing the results of the trial and once again found the word recombinant. After a very quick Google search and a read of the Wikipedia page (which defines recombinant DNA as ‘DNA molecules formed by laboratory methods of genetic recombination that bring together genetic material from multiple sources, creating sequences that would not otherwise be found in the genome…. A lot of buzz words there…), she confidently concluded that the vaccine was modifying everyone’s DNA and that it should be avoided at all costs. This video had several thousand views. In reality, the word recombinant in this context is referring to the modified chimpanzee adenovirus that is used in the vaccine but how was she supposed to know that?  She hasn’t spent several years studying the field of biochemistry and therefore cannot appreciate the context of specific scientific phrases such as that.

This is a result of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This describes the phenomenon of overestimating how much you know about a certain topic as a result of not being aware of how much you don’t know about that topic.

A world of information is now (literally) at our fingertips and as a result the prevalence of this effect is increasing dramatically, which we’re all likely to have been guilty of at one point or another. We all have an entitlement now that leads us to believe that we can understand anything, no matter how complex, after a weekend’s worth of research. At best, the result of this can lead to you coming across quite badly at a social gathering, but at worst this can manifest itself into dangerous conspiracy theories aided by echo chambers and a toxic distrust of experts.

This is actually a very difficult point to make without sounding patronising, but the end of the day the idea that one can read a scientific paper with no background in science and expect to understand it after googling some of the key terms is a dangerous entitlement to possess. This does not mean that people are not entitled to their own views or cannot decide matters for themselves, just that there needs to be awareness that as humans we cannot understand everything. This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to anti-vaxxer forums but can also be found in the mainstream as well. Whether it is Chris Whitty trying to hide his disappointment when Robert Peston asks an ill-informed question about new virus variants or Julie Hartley-Brewer interpreting the case numbers and false positive rates for herself – the media is no stranger to this effect either. A scientifically ill-informed media (or more specifically, political correspondents) can have the effect of laying the groundwork for these damaging conspiracy theories to then develop.

As we have observed over the past few years, the increased number of echo chambers and the now endemic spread of fake news can allow sceptical groups to manifest themselves into far uglier things. The time in now to educate a scientifically illiterate population (through not their own fault, GCSEs and that ‘base knowledge of science’ have clearly done a poor job in preparing a population for a scientific crisis; arguably many of these anti-vaxxers are just showing initiative and are curious to learn more) and to ensure the awareness of the Dunning-Kruger effect. This isn’t just for the pandemic – greater scientific challenges await our species on the horizon and as a population we must be ready to tackle them as a united front.

image credit: “IPV vaccination” by Sanofi Pasteur is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0