by Joe Ondrak, Kristina Gildejeva, and Edie Miller
With the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine rollout only days away, some experts in the U.K. are concerned that uptake will be low. A study by University College London found that only 49 percent of people surveyed considered themselves very likely to get the vaccine when it became available, with as many as one-fifth of participants considering themselves to be unlikely or very unlikely to get vaccinated. If this is the case, it would lessen the possibility of achieving herd immunity, and those who aren’t able to be vaccinated for health reasons might not be protected.
At Logically, we have been monitoring the disinformation about the development of a COVID-19 vaccine over the last eight months. The starting point for this investigation was a relatively disparate playing field. In early 2020, conspiracy and anti-vaccination groups were comparatively siloed within their own communities. Overlap and cross-chatter occurred in expected channels within specific cultic milieu, such as anti-vaxxers, proponents of alternative medicine, those subscribing to general New World Order theories, and early U.K. adopters of QAnon. Vaccine skepticism or outright anti-vaccination sentiment across social media was present, but spillover into mainstream discourse was low.
Two broad trends characterize the landscape in the subsequent months: the disparate narratives of misinformation in the U.K. at large began to convene under the umbrella of COVID-19 skepticism, and a distinction emerged between anti-vaxxers in general and anti-COVID-19 vaxxers in particular began to emerge.
Who perpetuates misinformation about the COVID-19 vaccine?
COVID-19 skepticism has united followers of other conspiracies, with one of the most influential being QAnon, the U.S.-imported right-wing narrative about the “liberal elite” and child-trafficking. Some homegrown channels spreading COVID misinformation include London Real, an outlet run by agitator and London mayoral candidate Brian Rose, and Stand Up X, a YouTube channel and campaign group run by David Icke and Piers Corbyn which advocates for non-compliance with anti-COVID protocols.
Another development is the emergence of disinformation micro-influencers. These are users who have built a significant following among like-minded people, based only on the content they post. Because Facebook lets people “follow” the updates of profiles without sending a friend request, a network of localized accounts has emerged. These localized accounts, which are not beholden to Facebook’s content policy for verified pages, share and cross-post anti-lockdown and anti-COVID-19 vaccine content. In this way, they carve out their own niche within the community discourse.
Being able to amass a following without establishing a specific verified page allows an influential community to form in plain sight. These accounts, being ordinary users and not verified pages, do not show up in Facebook’s mass analytics, and are therefore far harder to track and monitor. Viral information can be shared rapidly among this network before being posted to a group or page that can be monitored via Crowdtangle or other analytics software.
Why has the anti-COVID-19 vaccine movement been so effective?
There are two broad ways that the anti-COVID-19 vaccine movement in the U.K. has been modified for effectiveness. The first is narrative localization, which we have seen many times before in other disinformation campaigns. The second is a specific modification applicable to COVID-19 in particular: the distinction between anti-vaccination beliefs in general and anti-COVID-19 vaccination sentiment in particular.
When conspiracy narratives mutate to survive in different environments, we call this narrative localization. By jettisoning irrelevant elements and adding more appropriate ones, conspiracy theories stay relevant and find new followers in different communities.
There are two main forms of narrative localization: geographic and demographic. We found examples of geographical localization in our investigation into QAnon in Europe, where rather than positing that the foremost risk was Democrats trafficking and ritually abusing children, the focus is on figures from what they see as Europe’s “liberal elite”—for example, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel.
Demographic localization can be particularly effective for spreading conspiracy theories, as it takes advantage of existing emotive subjects or “hobby horses” within eg. religious communities, and focuses on those aspects to increase reach and potential for radicalization. We found examples of demographic localization in our investigation into Spanish-language disinformation during the 2020 U.S. presidential election, where existing anti-abortion or anti-communist concerns were emphasized in order to increase the appeal of certain disinformation narratives.
Narrative localization in the anti-vax response to the COVID-19 pandemic shows up in the following ways.
1. A recent Twitter trend within the U.K. anti-vax community was #Thalidomide. Cultural memory and interest in the case of the anti-morning sickness drug are still fairly high in the U.K., and the case is easily optimized for social media disinformation campaigns because of the emotive images of children with missing limbs that are associated with it.
2. Another example is the claim that the COVID-19 vaccines contain embryos or material from aborted fetuses, this is an import from religious anti-abortion groups in the U.S., but is likely to appeal to similar groups in the U.K.
3. A final narrative localization vector to mention is the hashtag #kbf (Keep Britain Free), in use across a variety of social media platforms.
Here, the green line shows the increasing popularity of #kbf as a trending hashtag over the year, with significant staying power towards the end of 2020. Later drop off on the graph is due to platform data ingestion. We expect an uptick of this sentiment closer to Christmas.
As the hashtag is Britain specific, co-occurrence with other hashtags shows how anti-lockdown and anti-covid-vaccine sentiment spreads in Britain. Hashtags such as #billgates, #newworldorder, #wewillnotcomply, and #wedonotconsent indicate that anti-vax sentiment and anti-covid-vax sentiment is strong, while #sackvallance and #sackwhitty illustrate the presence of a strong disdain for expert advice.
Not anti-vaccine, anti-COVID vaccine
There is an important distinction between anti-vaxxers in general, and those opposed to a potential COVID-19 vaccine in particular. Anti-vaxxers tend to believe that diseases such as measles exist, but disagree with vaccinations being necessary to curb their spread. Anti-COVID vaxxers believe that COVID-19 is a hoax or has been dramatically overstated in order to force an unnecessary vaccine on the population.
The key thing here is that not all anti-COVID vaxxers are anti-vaxxers; most just do not believe in the need for a vaccine for this particular virus; they believe the virus is a hoax or not serious enough, or that the vaccine has been developed too quickly and thus isn’t safe.
This modification is particularly dangerous as it opens vaccine resistance up to a new demographic who are not typically susceptible to anti-vax messaging. We found this to be in effect on the online messageboard Mumsnet in particular, where users were often keen to emphasize their openness to vaccination in general, before going on to detail concerns about the potential COVID-19 vaccine specifically.
One element common to COVID disinformation in particular is the trope of healthcare workers “revealing the truth” about the pandemic, often in viral front-camera videos, or by releasing decontextualized documents to misinform about the scale of cases and hospitalizations. There are two potential reasons for the popularity of this trope.
The first is a straightforward appeal to authority: the understanding of NHS staff as frontline workers creates a perception that they are best placed to see the truth of the pandemic, with some pointing to empty ICU beds or hospitals running at lower capacity as evidence that COVID-19 is a hoax.
The second is that these communications mirror the visual language the public has adopted around the pandemic more broadly. The environment of rainbows in windows, hashtags like #thankyouNHS, healthcare staff showing up in adverts has become ubiquitous since March, anti-COVID-vaxxers would be unsuccessful if they attempted to push back against this, instead they adopt the same visual language to convey the opposite message.
2020 Case study - 5G vs Bioweapon
When something as cataclysmic as a pandemic happens, disinformation experts immediately start to speculate about what narratives will take hold as an alternative explanation. In the case of COVID-19, however, many of us called it wrong at the start. The following case study illustrates how the disinformation campaign you expect is often not the disinformation campaign you get.
As the novel coronavirus was already in the news by the start of 2020, some speculation and conspiracies were present around its origins. The ‘bioweapon’ theory (red line) was present in January, spiking dramatically on Jan 27 when Zero Hedge, the far-right financial blog, published an article suggesting the theory. The second spike in March is thanks to a second article that led to Twitter banning the Zero Hedge account. We traced the origin of this theory to a fringe Indian news website with links to Russian disinformation networks.
Other lines here indicate that “mandatory vaccination” (yellow), “agenda21” (green), and “we do not consent” (blue) are other prevalent fears. Agenda21 is representative of a number of newer synonyms for the “New World Order”, while the other two are fears and refrains often used by the anti-vax movement.
In this second graph, we have displayed “5G coronavirus” alongside the other key terms.
What this shows is that the ‘bioweapon’ theory’s two most prominent spikes were dwarfed by the prominence of the 5G coronavirus theory. Of importance here is the point at which the 5G theory spiked, as this was the day that UK Lockdown measures were announced. This indicates that the 5G theory is a predominantly U.K.-grown conspiracy. Though the 5G conspiracy theory has been absorbed into wider anti-covid-vaccination theories—as illustrated in Stand Up X’s ID2020 microchip stance—key events such as vaccination rollout could prompt another spike.
The bioweapon theory, with its global outlook, basic plausibility, and anti-China sentiment appeared to be the disinformation narrative that would set the agenda as COVID-19 spread. Instead, early high-profile spread on Zero Hedge and other right-wing news outlets was met with swift counter-narratives, research, and debunking.
The 5G theory was present around the time of the bioweapon theory’s viral spread, but was, at the time, regarded as too fringe to catch on, as it existed predominantly in the complementary/alternative medicine community.
However, its subsequent eruption across U.K. social media spaces was precisely because of these communities and the years of pseudo-scientific research they had compiled. Early reporting presented the 5G theory as a crank curio, which, in turn, created a feedback loop by exposing the theory to many more people than would normally see it. Long-time anti-5G campaigners such as Mark Steele and Lee Garrett (who are both known regional disinformation and conspiracy agitators) also capitalized on the discourse.
Finally, the viral David Icke interview by London Real unified 5G, anti-lockdown, New World Order, COVID-19 denial, and anti-vaccine sentiment through his beliefs. Curiously, due to the aforementioned conditions and communities, the 5G COVID-19 theory remained relatively U.K.-centric and did not gain a widespread foothold in the U.S. The biggest indicator of this disparity is in the physical and social damage done by believers in the U.K. compared to elsewhere. Arsonists in the U.K. burned over 80 mobile phone masts and recorded themselves harassing telecoms engineers. Similar events happened in mainland Europe to a lesser extent. An arson attack in Montreal garnered widespread media coverage, and was notable in that it indicated a U.K. and European trend crossing the Atlantic, though it never really caught on after that.
Due to its role as a vector of COVID-19 safety disinformation, tech platforms cracked down on explicit 5G/COVID-19 theories and disinformation. As shown in the graph, this did bring the trend down, but had the added effect of vindicating believers who saw censorship as a sign that this was forbidden knowledge. At this stage, the role of 5G has been interpolated into the grander New World Order anti-COVID-19 vaccination meta conspiracy.
The most important trends to recognize are that the COVID-19 pandemic, and resistance to measures to control it, have provided a meeting point for the disparate communities existing around conspiracy theories and disinformation in the U.K., but also that anti-COVID sentiments have created an opportunity for people who were previously resistant to anti-vaccine sentiment to be converted to it.
Daniel Howdon, a Health Economist at the University of Leeds School of Medicine, says it’s important to keep in mind the structural reasons for the popularity of anti-COVID vaccine misinformation. “There’s a lack of trust in political institutions, a belief that safety checks will be circumvented to be the first to have a vaccine or to say that you've got a vaccine, or a feeling that [people’s] own views aren't represented in political debate.”
With this as the backdrop, many attempts have been made to crack down on public health disinformation in this area, but most have had limited success. Followers of anti-COVID-19 conspiracy theories have moved to closed-access and alt-tech platforms such as Parler, Telegram, MeWe, and Gab, as larger platforms crackdown on disinformation and conspiracy groups. Group members are inevitably lost in the “move”, but those who make the jump are further radicalized as the platforms are undiluted by reasonable views. These trends are worrying for the future of disinformation in the U.K., as they herald an era of greater uptake for conspiracy theories, as well as platforms and practices that are far harder to police than in the past. Developing the vaccine is only the first step in the process of controlling the pandemic, next we’ll need to convince people to trust it.
This piece is an edited version of a report produced by Logically's Investigations Team for use by some public health bodies and media outlets. If your organisation would like to see the full report please contact firstname.lastname@example.org