‘Natural immunity.’ A soothing phrase that sounds like something that might fit, neatly, into a section in a book on plant-based living, or perhaps typed in a pretty font on an Instagram graphic's pastel background. It feels like protection from disease that's free from the harsh strip lighting of a hospital ward and the cold pain of a sterile needle piercing the tender skin of your upper arm.
The reality, though, is more sinister. Rather than a benign slogan which encourages you to eat your greens and lace your home cooking with fresh ginger, it's one that has been weaponised by the anti-vaccination movement, who converge their ideas with the language of wellness. The goal? To convince you that things like diet, exercise and supplements are what will protect you from viruses–and that vaccines, just like those currently being tested to protect you from COVID-19, are dangerous. It's also gaining traction. Internet searches for the term peaked at an all-time high worldwide in March this year, per data from Google Trends.
Spurious claims can have seismic consequences. According to a recent report released by The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a not-for-profit NGO, YouGov polling of 1,663 British adults shows that one in six people (16%) say that they would ‘probably’ or ‘definitely’ refuse a COVID-19 vaccine.
To be clear: being at a healthy weight appears to be helpful, when it comes to staving off the virus' more severe forms–data shows that younger people admitted to coronavirus wards are more likely to be obese. (This is why the government has launched a new strategy to try and lower the numbers of people in this country who are very overweight.)
It is also true that the immune system is deliriously complicated, and there is much we simply do not know. However, unless you have already contracted COVID-19, your body has not yet produced the antibodies that can destroy the virus. Even if you are asymptomatic or experience very mild symptoms, you can still pass on infected droplets to the more vulnerable, and their fate might be less rosy. Exposing you to a diluted version of a virus so that your system can destroy the responsible pathogens–thus giving you immunity–is exactly the purpose of a vaccine.
So when it comes to the alarming data, how did we get here? Consider the pandemic as petrol on the fire of anti-vaccination theories. According to the CCDH's report, an investigation of 409 English language anti-vaxx social media accounts showed these pages now have a combined total of 58m followers, who come to receive conspiracy communion from the movement's high priests (this includes ostensibly respectable figures like environmental lawyer Robert F Kennedy Jr, who has acquired a fresh 336,000 Instagram followers over the past few months.)
He's not the only one: The 147 largest anti-vaxx social media accounts have experienced an uptick of 19% in audience members since 2019. Over the pandemic, Instagram pages dealing in vaccine conspiracies gained an extra 571,000 pairs of eyeballs, in total.
This is in spite of a pledge from Facebook to make such content harder to find on the platform, as well as on Instagram–both are part of the empire founded by Mark Zuckerberg. While steps have been taken, this swelling of followers to dubious accounts throughout the crisis has led to calls for greater curbs, from some quarters.
To understand what is fuelling this phenomenon and the allure of radical, unsubstantiated thought, WH had a conversation with:
Dr David Robert Grimes, a cancer researcher, physicist, and author of 'The Irrational Ape: Why Flawed Logic Puts us all at Risk and How Critical Thinking Can Save the World'
Here's what he had to say.
Why are we seeing such a proliferation of anti-vaxx theories, now?
I think there’s two answers. One is that we’ve always had these kinds of narratives being put out. Anti-vaxx campaigners have been doing this for years and, particularly with social media, have gotten very good at it.
Second thing is that right now, it's a scary time–we're living through a once in a century pandemic. We all want information; we’re all afraid. When we're operating in a state of fear, it's the ideal environment for people who thrive off terrifying falsehoods to suck us in with them. I think they know on some level that there's no real veracity to what they’re saying, but they also know this is the best time to catch a new audience.
For the vast majority of us, pre-pandemic, vaccination wasn’t something we were thinking about all the time. But now it’s in the papers everyday: ‘How long until the vaccine?,’ ‘How can we live without the vaccine?’– it’s become a focus. That awareness has also allowed anti-vaxxers to wax lyrical on their topic.
Does us being at home so much make things worse?
Yes. The more removed we are from our comfort zones, the more we are pushed into online spaces. This makes us more susceptible, as there’s the availability of these theories. It's true that the more you're exposed to something, the more likely you are to accept it.
What are the key coronavirus anti-vaxx beliefs?
Anti-vaxx myths are like zombies: You can slay them repeatedly and they still emerge from the grave. Often, they’re not original and, instead, attribute a nebulous kaleidoscope of different symptoms to various vaccinations. We've seen this with the MMR vaccine controversy, engineered mainly by the fraudulent work of [disgraced former doctor] Andrew Wakefield [who published a since totally discredited study, which linked the vaccine with autism.]
Often, a template is borrowed that will say that a vaccine comes with every negative side effect you can think of: cancer, autism, HIV/AIDs. They will claim everything with very flimsy or non-existent evidence. As such, they say, you should aim for 'natural immunity' and not take these medicines. [Theories that the virus was unleashed on the world so that pharmaceutical companies could profit from a vaccine are also popular, with another, which says that Microsoft founder Bill Gates has tested vaccines on children in African countries and in India, leading to thousands of deaths, is percolating. These for the record, have zero basis in fact.]
Why do anti-vaxxers bother?
Anti-vaxx activists are a subset of conspiracy theorists. So you need to dig into what motivates the latter, and go back in history. Since the time of the first immunisation there has been an ideological movement against vaccination.
This is partly because some people don't understand it and also because some people have this dichotomy in their heads between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural.’ A lot of anti-vaxx activists hold other non-medically robust beliefs, for example, being against any sort of pharmaceutical drug. They might have an identity around following a 'natural' lifestyle.
There is also a sense of wellbeing that comes from believing in conspiracy theories: you feel like you have special knowledge, even if you haven’t put the requisite study into that field of knowledge to be a real expert. There was a study done last year that showed that people who most strongly propagated a link between vaccination and autism actually knew the least about autism and vaccination–but thought they knew more. So that’s telling.
Plus, there's the human desire for certainty. The narratives that the anti-vaxxers follow are simple. But science and medicine are not. Conspiracies in general make people feel there’s a pattern, a reason, an easy explanation. Reality, however, is often a lot more complicated.
A few celebrities have endorsed various coronavirus conspiracy theories...
We are very curious creatures, we want to learn about the world–the problem is where we get our information from. With public figures, there is no guarantee they know what they are talking about, but they have a massive platform. It’s not that people are stupid; it’s that we’re vulnerable. The only vaccine here, so to speak, is critical thinking. We have to be–especially in the age of social media–sceptical. Ask ‘where are you getting that information from? Why do you believe that? Why should I believe that?'
How should we think about information?
Almost everything we read, unless from a very reputable source, is either wrong or transient. The latter is always going to happen with COVID–we learn new things; so things change. That’s how the scientific process works.
Only trust verified sources from legitimate outlets like Public Health England, the NHS, the World Health Organisation (WHO.) We’ve all got used to physical hygiene and now, we need to practice information hygiene. Dodgy information is like a virus: if you get infected, you’ll infect other people. Scepticism is like wearing a mask. Say ‘I am going to step back, check it’s legit and if it’s not, step away.’ Think before you click the 'like' button or re-share.
How should we deal with relatives who believe conspiracy theories?
People sometimes share things on WhatsApp, for example, because they think they're being helpful. You could say back: ‘That’s interesting but I think that could be wrong’. If someone attacks us, we’re not going to be inclined to change our mind. It's easy to accidentally polarise people and make them double down. Say ‘Out of curiosity, why do you believe that?’ Conversations are good; arguments are not.
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