The rise of the anti-vax movement in the age of coronavirus

  • Researchers are worried about the growth of the anti-vax movement during the pandemic.
  • They are targeting the search for a Covid-19 vaccine, sharing misinformation about its supposed dangers.
  • Vaccine trials in South Africa have grabbed the attention of these sceptics.

While our communities are being bombarded by a mysterious virus, many of our social media feeds have also been taken over by Covid-19: the latest death figures, tips for handling living under lockdown, education plans, retrenchment announcements, etc.

But the virus has brought on another crisis – an infodemic – where false information is touted as gospel and billionaires and governments are attacked for trying to manipulate the masses. Among the chaos of half-truths and blatant lies, the anti-vax movement has entered debates around Covid-19 vaccination.

The most prominent example was the viral video Plandemic – an insane short "documentary" on how the coronavirus is part of a wider plan by a secret elite to control the population, and that the Covid-19 vaccine is being designed to kill instead of protect. 

The scary part? It was watched and shared millions of times before being taken off YouTube, probably still existing in various forms all over the internet. 

Fitting right into their general narrative of "poisonous" vaccines, the pandemic might have created the perfect vehicle for the rise of the anti-vaxer.

READ | The psychology behind conspiracy theories – why do we want to believe them? 

Cognitive bias

But what is the logic behind the anti-vaccine movement?

There are many iterations of anti-vax sentiment, but it boils down to how humans are prone to gravitate to conspiracy theories as a means of taking control in their lives when chaos reigns around them, looking for patterns and grander agendas that will fit in with their preconceived biases. 

One study published in Social Science & Medicine posits that anti-vaccine beliefs – which became more prevalent after a debunked study linking vaccines to autism was published – is driven by the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

According to Psychology Today, the Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where we overestimate our skills and knowledge, yet lack the critical learning to realise our shortcomings. 

This becomes especially prevalent when experts themselves have admitted limited knowledge on a subject, like autism, and the general public believe they have the same amount or even more knowledge than the experts. 

This overconfidence is also associated with increased support for vocal non-experts like celebrities and their involvement in the policymaking process.

Throw in a previously-unknown virus, which scientists and politicians are scrambling to understand, and you end up confirming people's bias that the experts "don't know everything". 

READ MORE | Coronavirus conspiracy theories abound, and they could cause real harm 

How do anti-vax views spread?

A study in Nature used Facebook to analyse why anti-vaccination sentiments have grown in the last year, despite news coverage disproving their claims.

The researchers found that anti-vax social media groups weasel their way into the timelines of undecided groups, who have not yet elicited an opinion on vaccinations. They found that pro-vaccination groups and posts are more likely to "echo chamber" themselves without really penetrating these undecided networks. 

The danger of these echo chambers, however, is that the pro-vaccination side may not realise how prevalent the anti-vax groups are on social media and believe them to be far more on the fringe of society than they actually are. 

The anti-vax narratives are also incredibly diverse – from the safety of loved ones to a fear of the government – and gives it broader appeal than pro-vaccination messaging.

The groups also tend to be geographical. Growing communities limit themselves to regions or countries, later linking up with larger, global initiatives and sharing that content with their local followers. 

READ | What drives 'anti-vaxxer' parents? It's a mixed bag 

Anti-vax sentiment in South Africa

However, if you think it's easy to find these anti-vax groups online yourself, you'd be wrong. There appears to be a concerted effort by social media platforms and Google to highlight verified sources like the WHO and other health organisations and academic institutions when vaccine information is searched. 

On Google Trends, South Africans' searches for "vaccine" in the last 90 days were commonly associated with the Madagascar "vaccine" claimed to cure Covid-19, the Oxford trial, the Russian vaccine trial, asking whether it's a myth and the BCG vaccine (to prevent TB) and its relation to the coronavirus. 

This means that the sharing of anti-vaccination content could be more direct, and this vocal community perhaps has a more dedicated drive to convert undecided people through their social networks, actively sending them links to content that questions vaccines. 

The most prominent local anti-vaccination group is Vaccine Awareness South Africa (VASA), which has a public page with over 7 000 likes and a closed group with almost 10 000 members – and a lengthy application form to join.

VASA was started by Christine Hewlett, a self-proclaimed homoepathy expert. According to her blog, she started questioning vaccines after her son had an adverse reaction and started VASA in 2012 to "provide support to parents who are new to questioning vaccines, parents who are dealing with adverse reactions to vaccines and vaccine-injured children".

She also sells supplements like Vitamin C, with links to her shop shared on the VASA Facebook page. 

In the pandemic, the page is unsurprisingly focused on the Covid-19 vaccine trials, sharing articles, videos and memes opposing it, ranging from claims that a strong immune system can fight off the virus to wealthy pharmaceutical companies with vaccine patents that want to cash-in on the pandemic. 

It also shares anti-mask sentiments and conspiracy theories about government control. 

READ | Moderna Covid-19 vaccine 'promising' after early trial

'We are not guinea pigs'

While this type of group is similar to Western ones with similar concerns, Africans opposed to vaccination trials have a far more localised reasoning behind their views.

When it was announced that trials for a Covid-19 vaccine would start at Wits University in partnership with Oxford University, there were protesters in Johannesburg that opposed the trial taking place in South Africa, stating that "we are not guinea pigs" and that the volunteers did not understand what they were signing up for. 

This mirrors sentiment across the continent where Africans are sceptical of ex-colonial powers wanting to test a new drug, and that traditional medicine and African-developed vaccines like the one from Madagascar are being overlooked in the hunt for a Covid-19 cure, due to racial bias.

This also easily falls into the prevalent narrative of deceit in the South African government. 

However, these sentiments can have real effects on our future fight against the coronavirus. In an ongoing study on Americans' willingness to get the coronavirus vaccine when it becomes available, preliminary findings found that 23% of respondents said they would not get the vaccine.

A fifth of them were generally vaccine sceptics and, despite the pandemic, more than 60% of them also said they wouldn't get the vaccine.

While it's difficult to assess the numbers of anti-vaxxers in South Africa, it's important to remain aware of any growth in the movement and address their fears head-on when a vaccine finally does become available to stop the spread of Covid-19.

READ MORE | Covid-19 vaccine trial in South Africa: Everything you need to know

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