MisDisMal-Information Edition 26 : Of Anti-vaxxing eloquent, doom profiting, political superspreaders and the ‘Right’ kind of social media

This is an excerpt from Edition 26 of MisDisMal-Information: 

For the complete edition, go to: Of Anti-vaxxing eloquent, doom profiting, political superspreaders and the ‘Right’ kind of social media

Anti-vaxxing Eloquence

Let me start with asking you a question. Do you believe there is an ‘antivaxxers movement’ in India? A year ago, I would have laughed at the very notion. Today, I am not so sure. Maybe it is just a function of the information sources I choose to bury myself in. After all, I do go out of my way to look for such content more often that others would. But, I have been running into, let’s call them ’sceptics’, for now, outside of these sources too. But, as this BloombergQuint article (based on a survey by Ipsos) shows, support for getting a COVID-19 vaccine when available is high in India.

*(Image Source)*

*So this is good news, no, Prateek? Why are you panicking?*

Because, panic I do and panic I must. Ok, but seriously. Yes, this is positive for sure.

The detailed report had some other interesting observations too.

  • A footnote on page 3: Online samples in Brazil, China, India, Mexico, and South Africa tend to be more urban, educated, and/or affluent than the general population. And on page 8: “The survey results for these countries should be viewed as reflecting the views of the more “connected” segment of their population.”
  • Among the people who said they would not get a vaccine, the number who said they don’t believe in vaccines in general was at 19%, lower only than South Africa. (Page 6)
  • 52% of the respondents from India ‘strongly’ or ‘somewhat’ agreed with the statement ‘The chance of getting of COVID-19 is so low that a vaccine is not necessary.’ U.S. was the next highest at 31%. (Page 7)

Also, keep in mind though, that these opinions reflect a point in time. And remember that we live in an information ecosystem where narratives and conspiracy theories flow across borders (QAnon-variants are even finding a footing in Japan and Brazil).

In the book, Post-Truth, Lee McIntyre dedicates a chapter to Science Denialism as the pre-cursor for ‘post-truth’

The goal here is a cynical attempt to undercut the idea that science is fair and raise doubts that any empirical inquiry can really be value neutral.

If the “proof” game cannot be won, so we are going to play the “evidence” game instead, then where is your evidence, one might wish to ask the science denier.

Essentially, as he states ‘doubt’ is the product. Later, he argues in the context of the anti-vaccine movement that it was made worse by the willingness of established media to indulge in both-sidesism.

on the subject of the alleged link between vaccines and autism, based on the bogus research of Dr. Andrew Wakefield in 1998. Here the drama was even higher. Sick kids and their grieving parents! Hollywood celebrities taking sides! Maybe a conspiracy and a governmental cover-up! And again, the media failed utterly to report the most likely conclusion based on the evidence: Wakefield’s research was almost certainly bogus. He had a massive undisclosed conflict of interest, his research was unreproducible, and his medical license had been revoked. This was all known in 2004, at the height of the vaccine-autism story.

The rise of social media has of course facilitated this informational free-for-all. With fact and opinion now presented side by side on the Internet, who knows what to believe anymore?

Recently, the New York Times covered an astroturfing campaign:

In early 2017, the Texans for Natural Gas website went live to urge voters to “thank a roughneck” and support fracking. Around the same time, the Arctic Energy Center ramped up its advocacy for drilling in Alaskan waters and in a vast Arctic wildlife refuge. The next year, the Main Street Investors Coalition warned that climate activism doesn’t help mom-and-pop investors in the stock market.

All three appeared to be separate efforts to amplify local voices or speak up for regular people.

On closer look, however, the groups had something in common: They were part of a network of corporate influence campaigns designed, staffed and at times run by FTI Consulting, which had been hired by some of the largest oil and gas companies in the world to help them promote fossil fuels.

Anumeha Chaturvedi  wrote in the Economic Times quoting Jency Jacob and FactCrescendo – who expect confusion and information disorder around the vaccine (screenshot of the quotes).

The AFP quotes the head of WHO’s immunisation department:

Rachel O’Brien, head of the WHO’s immunisation department, said the agency was worried false information propagated by the so-called “anti-vaxxer” movement could dissuade people from immunising themselves against coronavirus.

“We are very concerned about that and concerned that people get their info from credible sources, that they are aware that there is a lot information out there that is wrong, either intentionally wrong or unintentionally wrong,” she told AFP.

Recently, a group of Public Health wrote an open letter asking the government to rethink its strategy of vaccinating every citizen.

Now, I am obviously in no position to counter their claims or question their motives. As someone who obsesses over information though, I can see this vocabulary being adapted by ‘sceptics’. There is a tweet with hashtags like SayNoToVaccines, SCAMdemic and Plandemic in the  quote tweets. Some of these points already (such as the ‘novelty’ of the mRNA platform) are. That isn’t to say these points shouldn’t be raised – but we should be aware of the effects they can have.

Venkat Ananth pointed this out on Twitter:

This poses all sorts of problems for genuine questions being raised about India’s vaccination plans. Thanks, 2020!

The government, on its part, has clarified that it was ‘never’ their strategy to vaccinate every citizen. (aside: the quote tweets are indicative of the trust-deficit that exists today)

If you look for it, on Indian Social Media, doubts/conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccine exist already. These posts may not be getting a lot of ‘engagement’ today. That doesn’t mean there are no effects (Facebook argues, engagement does not equal effects) Tommy Shane of FirstDraft uses the recent debate over Facebook’s Top 10 to highlight what we could be missing in social media analysis currently.

There’s been a lot of debate recently about “ Facebook’s Top 10 ,” a Twitter account that lists “the top-performing link posts by U.S. Facebook pages in the last 24 hours,” managed by The New York Times’ Kevin Roose.

Given that conservative pages tend to dominate the results, the lists have been used to argue that Facebook is biased in favor of conservatives. Facebook, in turn, has pushed back, arguing that engagement doesn’t equal reach.

Irrespective of this argument, “Facebook’s Top 10” points to wider issues about what we see and don’t see in misinformation research. And they go beyond what data we can access, and which metrics we look at.

How do analytics dashboards shape what we see online? What if, by focusing on posts with the greatest engagement, we are missing the things bubbling underneath? Could we be looking in the wrong places and missing real harm, simply because our tools make some things harder to investigate and study?

He refers to this as the misinformation “twilight zone”. Tellingly, these questions came up as the team was investigating vaccine narratives on social media. ‘This maritime comparison’, he says, ‘is a reminder that our technology can draw us toward seeing some things and not others.’

Brandy Zadrozny’s NBC News article points out that even though Facebook took action against large anti-vaccine groups, their effects lives on.

While researchers of extremism and public health advocates see the removal of the largest anti-vaccination accounts as mostly positive, new research shows the bigger threat to public trust in a Covid-19 vaccine comes from smaller, better-connected Facebook groups that gravitated to anti-vaccination messaging in recent months.

The article also carries a quote from Renée DiResta that got my attention:

“The anti-vaccine movement recognized that [Covid-19] was an opportunity to create content, so when people were searching for it, they would find anti-vaccine content,” she said. “They saw this as an opportunity not only to erode confidence in the Covid vaccine, but also to make people hesitant about routine childhood immunizations, as well.”

So let’s round this out:

  • We have an information ecosystem where narratives flow across national boundaries like they don’t exist (because, on the internet, they don’t – for now anyway). Heck, we have a ‘vibrant domestic disinformation’ industry too.
  • There will be many questions raised about COVID-19 vaccines for reasons varying from genuine doubts to opportunism.
  • Such content already exists in India. Though it may be low engagement for now, we cannot guarantee that it will a) remain low engagement b) isn’t already having isolated effects.
  • That ‘Pharma is profiteering’ is a narrative that also already exists in India. Again, this maybe borne out of genuine concern but the talking points can be picked up and used by anyone else.
  • The Ipsos survey points to the existence of a belief that vaccination is not necessary, at least month some people (even if we thing that the 52% number overstates this a bit)
  • There is a huge information vacuum- adverse affects from any of the vaccines, even logistical issues will be used immediately to sow doubts.

Yes, I am indulging in some Doom Propheting. As of now, we are fortunate that vaccine-scepticism is not a thing in India. But, if there was ever a perfect storm for it to take roots – We are there. How we respond is going to be important.

  • UK is calling in the army to defend against anti-vaccination propaganda.
  • The Indian government is looking to “maximise involvement of local influencers, including religious leaders, for countering misinformation and rumour-mongering regarding coronavirus immunisation.”

Fortunately, we have the benefit of seeing how some of this has played out in other parts of the world. Plus, a number of platforms are actually acting against this content now (For example, I had to click through a few prompts and pop-ups before I could see vaccine related results on Instagram)

It likely won’t play out in the exact same way here – but maybe, just maybe, we can be better prepared to limit the harm.

For the complete edition, go to: Of Anti-vaxxing eloquent, doom profiting, political superspreaders and the ‘Right’ kind of social media