MILAN — Now that Pfizer and Moderna appear to have viable COVID-19 vaccines, a range of legitimate questions are being posed — cost, supply, logistics — in order to carry out what we hope would become the fastest and widest vaccination effort in history.
But three days ago on Facebook, Italian Parliament member and political provocateur Gianluigi Paragone was focused on other questions: What were the potentially ugly side effects of the vaccine? Wasn't this simply a profit play by the pharmaceutical industry?
Paragone didn't have to wait long to get answers, as many of the hundreds of comments that followed amounted to rhetorical red meat of what has become known globally as the anti-vaxxer movement. Users warned that the vaccine would change our DNA; that it was poison; that it would help install microchips in our heads.
It is telling, and ominous, how quickly such a message stuck. The anti-vaxxers have mastered the tools of social media, spreading conspiracy theories as its own kind of digital virus. Over the past five years, basic scientific facts are disputed by a growing number of our neighbors. That vaccines remain one of the most important scientific discoveries ever, largely responsible for the longer life expectancy and public health gains of the last century, is now an open question for more and more people.
Until now, anti-vaxxers have been blamed for a few pockets of outbreaks of diseases that had long been vanquished by vaccines, most notably measles. But now we may be faced with a much greater risk: that the public mistrust that has flowed from between the anti-mask and COVID-deniers dovetails with the anti-vaxxer movement — and potentially undermines the global vaccination campaign against coronavirus.
The anti-vaxxers meld in with other conspiracy theory proponents — Photo: Sachelle Babbar/ZUMA
We are still likely months away from the full-fledged implementation, but in the latest opinion polls, only about one-half of the respondents in France and Italy and 40% in Germany said that they would get the shot.
The Lancet reports on a new study by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate that blames social media companies for allowing the anti-vaccine movement to remain on their platforms. The report's authors noted that social media accounts held by so-called anti-vaxxers have increased their following by at least 7 million people since 2019, and 31 million people follow anti-vaccine groups on Facebook.
There are legitimate reasons to be cautious about the new vaccines for now — for one, they still have to get safety approval from institutions before we even weigh our options. But spreading public distrust risks jeopardizing our chances to eradicate COVID-19, which depends on a sizable part of the population getting vaccinated.
A decade into the social media age, we are reminded again that digital information is both the poison and the cure — and a vaccine against its worst effects will take years to discover.