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Will conspiracy theories thwart trust in vaccine?

Social media plays significant role

OW Staff Writer | 11/20/2020, midnight

In February, the World Health Organization (WHO) warned about an anticipated “infodemic” of COVID-19 misinformation. Unsurprisingly, the "infodemic" became a reality just three months later, with mundane misinformation and more outlandish conspiracy theories about COVID-19 spreading as fast as, or faster than, SARS-CoV-2 itself.

The growing “infodemic” has allowed people to witness the genesis and evolution of COVID-19 conspiracy theories in real-time. They first sprang up in the form of speculations about the manmade origins of SARS-CoV-2 that have been largely debunked but still not laid to rest, and have quickly become interwoven with other pre-existing conspiracy theory themes related to 5G networks and vaccines. This is also unsurprising, since research has demonstrated that belief in one conspiracy predicts belief in others, even if they happen to contradict each other. The convergence of COVID-19 and anti-vaccination conspiracy theories seems both natural and predictable, but also particularly dangerous.

The race to present and distribute a viable vaccine has dominated the news in recent months. A few days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted a virtual summit attended by Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. Also attending was Chinese President Xi Jinping who offered to cooperate with India to develop a vaccine.

So far, Pfizer and BioNTech have sprinted ahead of other companies in the development of a viable vaccine, while the nation’s top scientist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said the trial results of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is “stunningly impressive.” It’s said to be “94.5-percent effective” according to early data. Johnson & Johnson has begun a two-dose trial of its vaccine and plans to enroll up to 30,000 participants for a comprehensive study.

With COVID-19 claiming some 1.33 million lives worldwide and almost 255,000 in the U.S. and counting—and the WHO speculating that COVID-19 might stay around for years to come—the stakes of vaccine hesitancy are now higher than ever. Winning the fight against COVID-19 won’t happen if a significant number of people refuse to be vaccinated. And yet, based on a Psychology Today study, roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population is already threatening not to use it, suggesting that believers of COVID-19 conspiracy theories are joining forces with believers of anti-vaccine conspiracy theories within a rapidly growing movement intent on mounting a full-scale misinformation war against vaccines.

A few months ago, the conspiracy theory video Plandemic promoted previously debunked claims that SARS-CoV-2 was manmade and that Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates and/or director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and voice of reason on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Fauci “deliberately orchestrated” COVID-19 in order to profit from a future vaccine. It was watched by millions before being removed by social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook as false and potentially dangerous misinformation, but it continues to circulate online, with conspiratorially-minded people taking its removal from the mainstream as paradoxical proof that it must be true.

While Gates has been a consistent target of COVID-19 conspiracy theories for months, Fauci has more recently been sucked into the conspiracy theory vortex. For example, some conspiracy theories now falsely claim that Fauci owns patents on a protein that forms part of SARS-CoV-2, implying that he might have some motive for creation of the virus.

While institutions like the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have attempted to counter the medical “infodemic” with reliable and accurate information about vaccines and now COVID-19, recent evidence suggests they’re fighting a losing battle. New research submitted by Psychology Today has suggested that anti-vaccine Facebook pages outnumber pro-vaccine pages more than 2:1 with followers growing more rapidly and interacting to other groups with potential ideological overlap, such as groups focused on “wellness” or more generalized safety concerns.