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How the Anti-Vaxxer Movement Co-opted Social Media

By Simran Johal

COVID-19 has exposed a plethora of problems, but one thing that stood out was the rising of the anti-vax movement. Anti-vaxxers are opposed to vaccinations, claiming that vaccines can cause health issues or are a part of big conspiracies against us. According to Kings College London, 1 in 3 people are exposed to anti-vax messages, discouraging them from getting the vaccine: a message highly amplified by social media.

This raises our first question – why are people anti-vax? Primarily, there is the idea that the risks outweigh the benefits.  Many believe that vaccines, although provide immunity, can also cause issues in other parts of our lives in the long term. This was the underpinning of the belief that vaccinations could cause Autism. This theory was massive in the 90s but was later disproven and was seen as an extremely detrimental medical hoax that resulted in vaccination numbers dropping below the amount needed to prevent an epidemic.

Secondly, there is the debate about ‘medical freedom’. Many anti-vax voices use the term ‘pro-choice’, claiming that it’s not about being against vaccinations but about having the choice to be vaccinated or not and its impact on determining whether their children can go to school or travel, based on that decision.  Groups like; ‘Save our Rights’ and ‘Learn the Risk’ claim that the rules implemented during the pandemic have been an infringement of our human rights and freedom. Many of these movements believe they will be forced to take a vaccine that isn’t safe, and the general distrust of government bodies and scientific leaders seem to be the foundation for many of these ideas. For the COVID-19 vaccine, particularly the speed in which it has been developed, people are sceptical and worried about the future side effects.

Groups with these belief systems have amassed thousands of likes on Facebook and Instagram platforms, where like-minded individuals can share information without any critical analysis or counterarguments. Social media ultimately gives people the power to reach wider communities that are easy to infiltrate and take advantage of, by feeding an overabundance of information with little scientific backing and are alternately packed in a believable text or meme. Media algorithms further exacerbate this by recommending similar content and snowballing into radicalisation.

This brings in our final questions of how we can prevent this and what are the dangers? Currently, when searching for anti-vax content, pop-ups appear. For Instagram and Facebook, the pop-up “Looking for vaccine info?” directs you to the NHS website where there is a fact-check tab. However, fact-checking can only do so much, especially with so many sceptics within these groups that don’t trust governing bodies. There is a need for Grassroots organisations to inform these disenfranchised groups, without the presence of governing bodies in order to build trust.

Anti-vax groups will continue to be present and consistent, just as they have throughout history. Many of these medical advancements are rarely without risk, but the most significant danger these groups pose is preventing vaccines from working, resulting in prolonged epidemics and even more deaths.

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