Engagement with anti-vaccine posts on a sample of UK Facebook pages trebled between July and August, analysis by the Guardian has found, triggering calls for a major new push to tackle conspiracy theories.
Interactions on posts expressing scepticism or hostility towards vaccines on six UK Facebook pages increased from 12,000 in July to 42,000 in August, according to the analysis, conducted using the social media analytics tool CrowdTangle.
The pages were selected by running keyword searches on terms associated with the anti-vaccine movement, creating a list of pages that frequently shared disinformation and conspiracy theories.
A Facebook page for an alternative medicine business that has 1.9m likes shared about 50 posts expressing scepticism about vaccines during the last three months. These included posts containing conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and false claims that vaccines are a form of population control.
According to polling published this summer, 53% of the UK population said they were “certain or very likely” to take a potential Covid-19 vaccine, and a further 20% were “fairly likely to”.
Another of the pages analysed has more than 500,000 likes and posted several times linking to a feature-length followup to the Plandemic conspiracy theory video that went viral in May. One post promoting the film, hosted on a separate site, received 118,000 views. The film blames the outbreak on big pharma, Gates and the World Health Organization, and warns that wearing masks is dangerous because it “literally activates your own virus”.
Other pages analysed included a fan page for the conspiracy theorist David Icke, with 22,000 likes, and a page set up to oppose UK lockdown measures, with 30,000.
While some of the increase may be accounted for by discussions of vaccines overall increasing across social media, all the content analysed expressed scepticism or hostility.
The Labour MP Chris Elmore, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on social media, demanded a “ramping up” of government efforts to counter misinformation online, saying a crossroads had been reached.
“Ministers need to bring forward a clear, coherent and targeted public information campaign detailing the rigorous scientific procedures that are being followed in developing a vaccine for Covid-19, and the robust safeguards that are in place,” he told the Guardian. “If their strategy isn’t overhauled quickly, misinformation may well erode public confidence to such an extent that it could fatally undermine the success of any clinically safe vaccine once one is identified.”
Facebook says it will remove content that poses an imminent risk to health. Disinformation that does not reach this threshold will be left up, but will be eligible for factchecking and may carry a tag letting the reader know the information is false. Its position may also be downgraded in news feeds by Facebook’s algorithm.
A Facebook spokesperson said: “This analysis only considers a small sample size and is not representative of our work in this space. Facebook does not allow harmful misinformation on our platforms and we have removed 7m pieces of Covid-19-related misinfo between April and June, as well as posts shared with us by the Guardian that violated our policies.
“We also reduce the visibility of vaccine misinformation by putting it to the bottom of News Feed, don’t show it in search results or recommend it to you and don’t allow it in adverts.”
Pages associated with anti-mask and anti-lockdown campaigns were found to be growing on Facebook. Five anti-mask pages analysed had 60,000 likes between them, up from 47,000 at the beginning of August, according to CrowdTangle data, a rise of 28%.
One viral video shared by a prominent anti-lockdown account shows an employee of a large UK care home chain claiming “Covid is a load of bollocks”. The original post, which received 310,000 views on Facebook, also contained the hashtag #WWG1WGA, a slogan associated with the far-right conspiracy theory QAnon.
Heidi Larson, the director of the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, a global surveillance programme on vaccine trust, said low trust in government could influence vaccine scepticism, while those opposed to any forthcoming vaccine were capitalising on uncertainty.
“A problem is that those behind the ‘pro-vaccine’ sentiment are not really filling that space with much more than talk about, for example, going at ‘warp speed’ or ‘fast tracking’, and that’s not helpful,” said Larson, who advocated a greater focus on explaining why innovation had come about.
“I think as much as can be done locally is also best. Governments are really not faring well in the trust index right now, particularly in the US and the UK, neither of which have handled the pandemic well.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport said: “Since the start of the pandemic, specialist UK government units have also been working rapidly to identify and rebut false information about coronavirus, including working closely with social media companies.”