WEEKLY TRENDS IN SOUTH AFRICA OP-ED
Disinformation in a time of Covid-19: Anti-vaxxers – a lost cause?
Combating anti-vaxxer content and disinformation isn’t just the task of civil society, government and platforms, but of all professional bodies and entities.
William Bird is director and Thandi Smith heads the Policy & Quality Programme at Media Monitoring Africa, a partner in the 411 platform to counter disinformation.
Week 26: Anti-vaxxers – a lost cause?
Anti-vaxxers are indeed a sensitive bunch. In response to our piece about Dr Susan Vosloo last week we had insults and “HandsOffDrVosloo” hashtags sent our way. There were more long dreary videos of people earnestly explaining just how evil vaccines are, how they poison the blood etc, and there seems to be little hope of encouraging them to consider a different reality (rather just, reality). It’s easy to just write them off, but there are a number of reasons why we can’t afford to.
While we may not be able to shift the thinking and approach of anti-vaxxers, we do know that their scare tactics and fear-mongering can affect the views of those who may be vaccine hesitant. When we refer to anti-vaxxers we mean those who spread false, inaccurate and unverified information about vaccines. People who are hesitant about vaccines often have legitimate concerns about their safety and side effects, and they may also just be reasonably sceptical. The more cautious approach to new shiny things like the Covid-19 vaccine isn’t a bad sign. If more people had such an approach we might be less likely to fall victim to scams and the like.
While those who are vaccine hesitant may not believe what anti-vaxxers say, it may rouse their anxiety and doubt and get them to hold off a little longer. Conspiracy theories have power because they often contain elements of truth. Governments around the world have lied to people about all manner of things. Big Pharma routinely puts profits before people. These are not controversial assertions. People’s trust in some of the big institutions has been repeatedly violated, so not only are people correct to be sceptical, but their level of trust in key institutions is also understandably shaky. It’s one of the reasons, if not the major reason, why last week’s proposal for a universal basic income grant and fund administered by the state was met with horror and dismay – not because the idea is bad or even undesirable, but because people have very little faith and trust in the state to administer such a system. In this context, allowing the anti-vaxxers unfettered spraying of their excrement doesn’t just further eat away the credibility of institutions, it openly feeds people’s fears and mistrust, thus making it increasingly likely that people will be more hesitant. In this it is clear that disinformation doesn’t just undermine institutions, it also causes real harm to the public.
If we accept that, while tempting, simply ignoring anti-vaxxers may just encourage them, we need to unpack the strategies we can pursue to combat and mitigate the lies.
One of the most common strategies is counterspeech. For all the nonsense that is spewed out by the anti-vaxxers, what we need to do is put out huge amounts of good quality, health-empowered vaccine supportive content. Of course, this is easier said than done. Producing informative accessible content that explains and outlines complex issues requires high skill levels. It’s easy to make stuff up and it doesn’t have to be linked or even be coherent in its logic. It’s much more challenging to produce scientifically sound content.
There is a huge amount of great content coming from the likes of CovidComms and the African Infodemic Response Alliance as well as Unicef, the national Department of Health, and numerous others. Even if we overcome the first challenge of producing the content, in easy to understand and accessible ways, and even if we are able to do so in the languages that people understand, we then have to ensure that we get the content out there.
Research coming out last week from the University of Johannesburg Centre for Social Change and the Human Sciences Research Council looking at vaccine acceptance found:
“With information sources, the lowest acceptance rate was associated with social media and the highest rate with flyers etc., with television and radio in the middle. There is a case for intensifying campaigning across all platforms, but television is the most important because it has the greatest influence (followed by radio).”
Promoting and scheduling credible content
Advertisers spend hundreds of millions of rands putting content in front of people, which also requires dedicated resources. We know all about Digital Vibes flushing the money away, and while the Solidarity fund has been making resources available, it pales compared to the need.
Recent efforts by civil society, led by CovidComms (and supported by MMA and others), to get prime-time airtime donated for Covid communication have not only brought much-needed focus to the issue but also resources. SABC is to be applauded for its commitments in this regard. It isn’t enough, but it is a start, and we strongly encourage all media to make portions of their prime advertising assets available for public health content.
There has been a notable increase in content about vaccines, encouraging people to be vaccinated, looking at side effects, death rates and safety. Daily Maverick has been running its scientific collective for months providing accessible credible content. News24 has had a greater focus on vaccine related coverage, like here and here. Several smaller media outfits have also been addressing vaccines.
Even if we are successful in creating a deluge of good content, with flyers and multilingual broadcast content the anti-vaxxer content is still out there. What we can achieve is a predominance of good content. It just takes one person to scream “shark” while swimming in the sea for all the swimmers to head for the beach – even if there isn’t a threat.
Fact-checking and quality reporting
Another powerful method for combating the anti-vaxxers is the fact-checkers and quality journalism entities. We are lucky to have Africa Check, supported by a network of global fact-checkers consistently fact-checking content, rebutting and disproving the disinformation. More world class entities like Bhekisisa, Health-e News and Spotlight also track and unpack the diverse issues. Being able to point to easily verifiable links, evidence-based reporting and scientifically sound principles is another key weapon to combat the anti-vaxxers.
Once we step outside of these entities, however, the picture is less positive. Counterspeech as an approach was commonly adopted by the various platforms when they were accused of allowing so much bad content. The problem with online platforms is the algorithms clearly favour divisive and extreme content, and misinformation and disinformation. While all platforms have made efforts to promote credible content and information about Covid-19, the reality is that even with search engines algorithms are dictating the majority of content we are exposed to, and unless it’s actively promoted, good public health content isn’t going to get the same traction as the anti-vaxxer stuff.
Because the anti-vaxxer content tends to be engaging – even for those who hate watching it, it is likely that even if you start off with good content that the algorithms will expose you to content about the same thing, but it may be anti-vaxxer content. The algorithm editorial choice and echo chamber issue is not an easy one to address as it is deeply entwined with the business models of the platforms, and how they operate is kept private.
If we are to meaningfully address and combat anti-vaxxer content and disinformation content more broadly, it is critical that the algorithms that structure our lives are made far more transparent. That is an ongoing battle (more about this in another piece). In addition, because each platform has its own algorithm, how certain content gets favoured and promoted and how other content is not promoted will also vary from platform to platform, meaning that the ability to limit disinformation is that much greater.
Playing your part
The importance of the public being able to spot and act against disinformation is another critical tool in combating disinformation and anti-vaxxer content. It matters that people can report to Real411 where content is assessed according to the same rights-based criteria. It’s important because it means it can be referred for take-down where necessary, and for targeted responses to be sent. It’s important because it stands alongside the fact checks, the accurate credible information about content that is causing harm. It’s important because it’s driven by the public, so while it won’t reach all the disinformation across all platforms, the more members of the public who are aware and report, the more it will affect their own social media chambers, limiting the spread.
One person is unlikely to change the impact of anti-vaxxer content, but the broader public can. After all, those who are vaccine hesitant are family members, friends, and colleagues. Each member of the public who acts and makes our online world that much better gives a bit more freedom to the next to do the same thing.
It is in the interest of all to get as many vaccinated as possible, not just so we, our family and loved ones don’t get seriously ill, but also so that we can open our country again to tourists, we can move about freely, and once again physically engage with people. The issue goes beyond those currently fighting the battles, it is in the interest of every entity to help encourage vaccines and combat anti-vaxxers and disinformation.
Wimpy and Game have taken the initiative to reward those who are being vaccinated and are to be applauded, but where are the others? What about those workers, like cashiers, and shopkeepers, who have been exposed to the perils of Covid-19? Let’s see Pick n Pay, Checkers and Woolworths incentivising vaccines. They too can donate some of their ad spend to public health content. Mobile operators and internet providers facilitate the spread of disinformation – they may not do so intentionally, but they can combat this with incentives to be vaccinated and supporting the methods we have listed above.
In the wake of Vosloo’s comments we applaud the South African Medical Association and the South African Heart Association for clearly endorsing vaccines. When people undermine the framework that enables and legitimises their trust and credibility, they need to be held accountable. Combating anti-vaxxer content and disinformation isn’t just the task of civil society, government and platforms, but of all professional bodies and entities.
We need people to stand up and act against those who seek to exploit fears, those who display no compassion who seek to heighten fear. You can help by reporting digital harms to Real411. It won’t stop disinformation, but it may reduce the spread and cause less harm. It is critical that we all play our part in combating and mitigating these digital offences. If you suspect that content could be disinformation, hate speech, harassment of journalists or incitement to violence, there is something you can do about it.
To make it even more simple, download the Real411 mobile app. We are approaching that magical period where political parties need to show us that they care, so in addition to asking about what they will do in your area, ask them to issue one public statement a month in the lead-up to elections that highlights and condemns any attacks on journalists AND then to demonstrate what action they took to help combat that. If they are edgy or push some other bullshit agenda don’t vote for them because they don’t believe in democracy. DM
Remember, if you come across content on social media that could potentially be disinformation, report it to Real411.
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