Coronavirus vaccination rates are rising as more doses gradually become available, and surveys show that the public has more confidence in vaccinations. But a steady group of anti-vaccination campaigners, spanning both ends of the political spectrum, are producing disproportionate amounts of misinformation that tones into people’s agonizing fears of side effects or more lasting health consequences.
This online attack can quickly dominate social media conversations about vaccines, worrying experts about their power to influence people who don’t speak out directly against vaccines but may have concerns about lightning-fast Covid-19 shots.
“They are very effectively able to use a brigade to flood the comments or hashtag so that it looks like the vast majority of public opinion feels a certain way,” said Renée DiResta, director of disinformation research at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “It is supposed to create the perception that there are very large groups of people who distrust vaccines.”
Health care workers said it was up to them to organize defenses online as social media platforms failed to protect themselves from sophisticated attacks by anti-vaccination activists, despite anti-harassment policies on sites like Facebook and Twitter during the pandemic and public have passed health misinformation. Businesses are under pressure from lawmakers to do more during the health crisis.
Efforts to endorse vaccines have exposed doctors and nurses to cyberthreats and reputations, including negative reviews on review sites like Yelp. In some cases, they have taken the extraordinary step of removing their phone numbers and addresses from the internet to avoid harassment.
Doctors and nurses are some of the most trusted voices in vaccination, although some have refused to get vaccinated immediately. They strive to reach color communities that are disproportionately affected by the virus and are more reluctant to get vaccinated. They said they see themselves filling an important information gap as a large-scale federal messaging campaign President Joe Biden promised to promote vaccinations that are largely on hold due to limited supply.
Your organizational efforts are a new twist in the long-running online battle for harmful misinformation.
A group, Shots heard around the worldhas screened 900 globally vetted volunteers – including many doctors – who post supportive messages when the posts are targeted by vaccine representatives, said co-founder Todd Wolynn. Healthcare workers can report anti-vaccine activity through a link on the group’s home page, which is monitored at all times.
The group, which is part of a nonprofit that helps Kaiser Permanente and other health systems promote Covid-19 shots, shared a detailed playbook for dealing with anti-vaccination activists that it was developed after years of promoting vaccines against HPV, flu, and disease. One of the most important guidelines for someone exposed to an online attack: Don’t deal with the trolls.
The core group of doctors who came up with the #ThisIsOurShot campaign maintains a 100-person Slack channel and weekly Zoom calls exchanging information about posts targeted by anti-vaccinators. The group that began taking as a grassroots social media campaign California Medical Association members have hired a full-time employee to help raise awareness.
DiResta from the Stanford Research Center helped the campaign monitor its reach to the number of likes and shares in each post. Her group also warns organizers against attempts to hijack pro-vaccine hashtags to increase their disinformation.
In the nearly two months since Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna shots were approved in the US, there have been no major safety concerns with the coronavirus vaccines. According to the federal government, around 50 million doses of one of the two vaccines have been administered to date.
Anti-vaccination activists have skewed news reports to make vaccines appear unsafe. For example, they were responsible for a widespread false claim that a nurse who passed out after receiving the vaccine on TV later died.
DiResta said this was a common tactic used to discredit pictures of safe vaccinations. “Sure, you see this picture now, but you don’t see what happens after that,” she said.
Social media companies have taken steps throughout the pandemic to clean up the disinformation from Covid-19. Facebook said it would expand the type of fake Covid-19 and vaccine claims it would proactively removeincluding those who state that “vaccines are toxic, dangerous, or autistic”. This announcement came shortly after a vaccination protest organized on Facebook temporarily disrupted a mass vaccination site at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
Facebook’s own Instagram this week too The report from well-known anti-vaccine activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has been removed for repeatedly sharing “exposed” claims. Twitter and TikTok also announced new steps to tackle vaccine misinformation in December when the first footage was released.
Facebook spokesman Dani Lever noted that the company allows users to block others and moderate comments, including by restricting certain users from viewing and posting. “We encourage people to report bullying on our platform so we can review the content and take action,” said Lever.
A spokesman for Twitter said the company continues to address “misleading COVID claims” and prioritize “removing content when there is a clear call to action that could potentially cause real harm”. A TikTok spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite these efforts, healthcare workers said they are still being harassed on these platforms.
Vicki Chan, an ophthalmologist who does contract work at Kaiser Permanente, said her #ThisIsOurShot posts on TikTok, where she has nearly 270,000 followers, sometimes attract racist comments blaming Chinese for the virus. She said that she usually freezes or brushes these accounts and that it is important for her to keep posting.
“If I can just answer one person’s question and get them to trust us and have confidence in the vaccine, I think it’s huge because that one person has an impact on their friends and family,” she said.