Vaccine disinformation ‘forensically targeted ‘ at specific groups – minister

Ella Pickover and Emma Bowden, PA
·4-min read

Vaccine disinformation is being “forensically targeted” at specific groups, MPs have heard.

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said that information is “very, very cleverly, hyper super-forensically targeted at different communities”.

Mr Zahawi told the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee that disinformation about vaccines and fertility were “proving to be sadly quite potent”.

The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) had raised no concerns about any of the vaccines and fertility, he added.

And Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch told MPs that people needed to take a “personal responsibility” in tackling vaccine disinformation.

Coronavirus – Sat Nov 28, 2020
Nadhim Zahawi said disinformation was ‘proving to be sadly quite potent’ (Danny Lawson/PA)

She also told MPs that misinformation around fertility and coronavirus vaccines was coming from “the aunty” rather than social media.

During the committee session, Labour MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy asked what efforts were being taken to stop disinformation being targeted at specific groups.

She said: “We have seen the type of disinformation varies depending on the group it’s being circulated to. For example, Hindu and Muslim communities were told there is this information about the vaccine containing meat and alcohol.

“In black communities, we saw historical injustices is being exploited by anti-vaxxer groups.

“And false reports about the vaccine leading to infertility increased fears amongst young women.”

Mr Zahawi replied: “Even if I look at my own background, and mine and my wife’s family, from the Middle East, much of this information is very, very cleverly, sort of hyper super-forensically targeted at different communities.”

On concerns raised about vaccines and fertility, he added: “Some of the anti-vax messages, which are clearly directed at both young men and women around fertility, are false, but proving to be sadly quite potent.

“Some of the focus groups and polling evidence suggests much of the hesitancy is around issues around fertility.”

Ms Badenoch said: “The fertility thing is more problematic as a type of misinformation, because of where it comes from.

“I had a roundtable with clinicians last week and one of them works in east London, and she said that the fertility thing, it’s not social media where we can speak to social media companies and ask them to take it down, it’s the aunty.

“Aunts who may be less well educated or come from a different environment growing up, in a different country, advising younger people.

“We can’t go into people’s homes and interfere with the sort of communication that is taking place, that’s very personal.

“So that’s why we just must keep repeating the positive messages about safety and also ensuring that clinicians have the information to be able to provide comfort to those people who are seeing the doctors.

“It has to be from the people who are trusted as experts.”

To view this content, you'll need to update your privacy settings.
Please click here to do so.

Mr Zahawi told MPs what while there was no safety data on pregnant women, there is currently no reason to suggest the vaccine would have an adverse effect.

Ms Badenoch said that people needed to take a “personal responsibility” in tackling vaccine disinformation.

She said: “People need to take personal responsibility. Everybody needs to take their own personal responsibility.

“They can’t wait for the minister to fix the vaccine disinformation that’s happening within their WhatsApp group. We are never going to see it; neither is the social media company or the telephone platform.

“Reinforcing the message that everybody has their responsibility, whether you are a family member, whether you are a journalist, a clinician, a teacher, a local politician.

“We, as MPs, also have a responsibility to tackle some of this. I have given repeated examples of how MPs (for) political purposes end up using vaccine misinformation phrases that are unbelievably unhelpful.

“We need to be serious and lead by example as well.”

She said that she personally joined trials for the coronavirus vaccine following misinformation about jabs being tested on ethnic minorities.

“We could see the misinformation around the vaccine being tested on ethnic minorities and things like that,” Ms Badenoch told the committee.

“That was one of the reasons why very early on I decided to go on vaccine trials and encouraged others to do so. Nadhim (Zahawi) did the same thing.”