The Anti-Vaxx Playbook by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, notes
The Anti-Vaxx Industry, CCDH’s July 2020 report, exposed how the global scientific consensus on vaccines is being undermined by a small but determined and sophisticated network of individuals and groups spreading misinformation online. They have improved their reach and sustainability through skilful exploitation of social media to proselytize and normalize their fringe beliefs.
Big Tech companies such as Facebook and Instagram, Twitter, Google and YouTube have done little to stop the flow of lies. Another CCDH report, Failure to Act, released in September 2020, showed that even when users report misinformation to the platforms, fewer than 1 in 20 misinformation posts were removed. Why? In part, because the audience for anti-vaccine misinformation is worth up to $1 billion a year.
Global health advocates need to understand the battle we are in. There is an identifiable counterforce trying to persuade people Covid isn’t dangerous, vaccines are dangerous, and that doctors and scientists cannot be trusted. Pretending the threat doesn’t exist isn’t good enough. Assuming compliance with vaccine programmes is negligent. We need to adapt or risk losing.
Digital platforms have rapidly become the dominant means by which people transmit knowledge, maintain relationships and establish norms and values. The Covid pandemic has further consolidated this situation. Social media became a vital part of our wellbeing as physical interactions were curtailed. The digital realm of our existence, however, is governed by algorithms that don’t care about truth, our wellbeing or even morality, and are instead designed to maximize time spent on platforms. The organisation of content by algorithms in such a way, without regard to any harm it may cause, is fundamentally changing our society. We are not just less able to agree on what were once considered “facts”. It is making it more fissiparous, more brittle, more polarised and less tolerant.
This report, The Anti-Vaxx Playbook, is based on in-depth analysis of speeches and presentations by leading digital anti-vaccine advocates at a meeting they recently held in private over three days; investigation of private anti-vaccine digital spaces; and other intelligence gathered by our researchers. It reveals how anti-vaccine networks are systematically planning to suppress uptake of the Coronavirus vaccine by exploiting digital platforms.
These malignant actors have developed their strategic understanding over years of advocacy and practice. Their strategy is simple. Exploit social media algorithms’ predilection for controversial and engaging content to hammer home three key messages - Covid isn’t dangerous; vaccines are dangerous; and mistrust of doctors, scientists and public health authorities. Despite the variety of styles, tones and themes employed by the anti-vaccine movement, every meme they share is in service to one of these three messages.
Our response must be equally simple: to inoculate against misinformation by ignoring the individual memes generated by the anti-vaxx industry and instead focus on communicating our core message - one that has the benefit of being true:
1. Covid is deadly;
2. Vaccines are among the safest, most effective, most consequential human inventions in the past two centuries, saving countless lives from disease, disability and even death; and
3. Doctors, scientists and public health professionals chose those professions because they want to help people and better understand the world.
Big Tech needs to make a decision, now that we expose the intent, the tactics and the deadly impact of the anti-vaxx industry, and the ways in which social media platforms have become integral to their success. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google can stop this now. They could stop providing services to people whose business is in enabling the spread of disease and death. The tech giants keep telling us that they will remove anti-vaxx content from their websites and yet the key players exposed in The Anti-Vaxx Industry are still meeting months later, gleefully plotting how the Coronavirus vaccine presents them with an opportunity to sell their false cures and false hope on social media platforms. Anything less than the dismantling of these individuals’ profiles, pages and groups and permanent denial of service, now they know what is happening, is willing acquiescence.
The time for spin is over. For years, we assessed that the social media companies did not understand the problem because if they did, surely, they would do something about it because it was harming people. Lots of government, political and civil society leaders and public figures personally met with tech sector representatives to discuss the threat and received assurances that they would actively remove material that violates their terms of service. And yet, a decade later, there is even more misinformation on the platforms. It is time for quantifiable, verifiable action, or governments need to step in to perform their ultimate duty - to protect the lives of the people who put them in place.
The report states
1. Drawing on access to a private conference attended by the world’s leading anti- vaxxers, CCDH has been able to reveal their plan to use social media to spread distrust about the Covid vaccine and recruit new supporters to their cause.
2. Leading anti-vaxxers view Covid as an historic opportunity for them to reach larger numbers of the public than ever before, and to create long-lasting distrust in the effectiveness, safety and necessity for vaccination.
3. Online anti-vaxxers continue to grow, with 147 of the leading accounts gaining 10.1 million followers since 2019, an increase of 25%. The additional growth took place primarily on Instagram and YouTube, with anti-vaxxers adding an extra 4.3 million followers on each platform.
4. Anti-vaxxers have developed a sophisticated playbook for spreading uncertainty about a Covid vaccine, converting vaccine-hesitant people into committed anti- vaxxers, and resisting attempts to remove their misinformation.
5. Online anti-vaxxers have organised themselves around a “master narrative” comprised of three key messages: Covid is not dangerous, the vaccine is dangerous and vaccine advocates cannot be trusted.
6. Alternative health entrepreneurs, conspiracy theorists and accounts aimed at parents or ethnic communities vastly expand the reach of this master narrative and tailor it to cause uncertainty in their audiences.
7. Anti-vaxxers have created accessible online “answering spaces” such as Facebook Groups, Instagram accounts and purpose-built websites that are designed to answer legitimate questions about a Covid vaccine with anti-vaccine misinformation.
8. The most established anti-vaccine “answering spaces” identify vaccine hesitant individuals, convert them into committed anti-vaxxers and offer training to make them more effective activists.
9. Anti-vaxxers are attempting to mitigate the removal of their misinformation by adopting a “Lifeboat Strategy” of migrating their followers to “alt-tech” platforms such as Telegram and Parler, but with little success.
10. The public are urged not to engage with anti-vaxx misinformation online, even to rebut it or criticise it, because doing so only spreads the misinformation to new audiences. The example is given of anti-vaxxer narratives “trending” on social media on the first day of the vaccine rollout, primarily due to pro-vaccine accounts amplifying them. Instead, users are urged to share pro-vaccine messages.
11. Platforms are urged to remove the accounts of anti-vaxx “superspreaders”, those accounts with the largest followings and using the most cynical tactics. The report provides evidence that some are guilty of promoting false cures for Covid and training their social media followers to spread harmful misinformation.
12. Pro-vaccine practitioners are advised to focus on inoculating the public by ignoring individual memes and focusing on the master narrative, with a series of suggestions for how “inoculation” can make individuals more resilient to anti-vaxxer messaging.