At his suburban Melbourne medical practice, GP Dr Billy Stoupas has been fielding an “unprecedented” number of vaccine questions from patients.
The questions started when the US approved the Pfizer vaccine two months ago and have been increasing ahead of the Australian rollout — now only weeks away.
Things like: How did they get the vaccine ready to go so quickly? How do we know it’s safe? Which one would you get?
“We spend time discussing things like that and try to reassure people,” he says.
Australians are overwhelmingly supportive of vaccinations in general, but surveys show a higher than usual rate of hesitancy about the COVID jab.
This is to be expected — COVID vaccines have been developed very fast, so it’s natural to ask how they have been found safe to use.
But lurking in the background, experts say, is a hidden campaign of misinformation.
Their concern is that as the vaccines start to roll out, social media posts peddling fake news about unreported deaths, hidden microchips or some other conspiracy theory will increase in volume. Other countries have seen this already.
Dr Stoupas has noticed how a vaccine hoax will circulate online, and then, the very next day, one of his patients will bring it up during their consultation.
What’s to be done?
Social media companies have proven unable to keep up with the spread of misinformation on their platforms, while studies show that debunking and fact-checking services are often not as widely read as the misinformation itself.
Rumours travel faster and deeper than the truth online. Reiterating misinformation in order to debunk can even make the problem worse.
If we think of misinformation as an infectious disease, the attempts to both stop the spread and treat the symptoms have not proven to be effective enough.
What if there was another way? What if we could vaccinate against misinformation?
Prevention is better than the cure
First proposed in the 1960s, “inoculation theory” has (by sheer coincidence) gained prominence during the pandemic and the rollout of actual vaccines.
A series of trials over the past decade have shown that exposing people in advance to the tricks of misinformation (equivalent to giving them a weakened version of a virus) makes them better at recognising misinformation later.
The studies also show inoculation is more effective at preventing misinformation than debunking or trying to change people’s minds.
In essence, prevention is better than the cure.
“Once people accept conspiracies it’s very difficult to dislodge,” says Dr Tom Aechtner, a leading expert on vaccine hesitancy and misinformation at the University of Queensland.
His colleague, Professor Matthew Hornsey, describes it as “like stealing thunder”.
“When you see a trick or technique being used, you can think, ‘Oh yes, so that’s what they’re trying to do’ and you’re less likely to be manipulated.”
All misinformation, the theory says, uses a common bag of tricks.
Big Tobacco used these tricks to convince millions of people for decades that cigarettes didn’t cause cancer, Professor Hornsey says. Tricks like discrediting their opponents or using fake medical experts to promote smoking.
“They’ve since been used by vested interests trying to convince the public that the science isn’t settled on climate change,” Professor Hornsey says.
“Now we’re seeing it with anti-vaxxers.”
What are these tricks?
In 2018, two psychologists at the University of Cambridge developed an online game to demonstrate the tricks of misinformation and test inoculation theory.
In Bad News, players take on the role of an aspiring fake news tycoon: their task is to get as many followers as possible by actively spreading fake news.
Along the way, players collect badges for each trick of misinformation:
- Polarisation — amplifying existing grievances and tensions between different groups
- Invoking emotions — such as fear, anger, or empathy
- Spreading conspiracy theories — creating or amplifying alternative explanations for news events which assume that these events are controlled by a small, usually malicious, secret elite group of people
- Trolling people online —deliberately inciting a reaction from a target audience by using bait
- Discrediting others — typically to deflect blame and accusations of bias
- Impersonating more credible sources — such as setting up a fake Twitter account
Though developed for research, the game received positive reviews from gaming sites and has been played more than a million times.
In a study of 15,000 players, published in the journal Palgrave Communications, the researchers tested the participants’ ability to discern fake news before and after playing the game.
“And what we found is that people systematically improve in their ability to recognise fake news,” says Sander van der Linden, a professor of psychology at Cambridge and one of the authors of the study.
“They rate fake news as being less reliable, less accurate and more manipulative.
“They also become more confident in their ability to discern credible from uncredible content.”
The results were promising enough that the UK government and the World Health Organization commissioned a follow-up version of the game, Go Viral!, that focuses on COVID-19 misinformation.
“It’s been out for a few months now and we’ve had hundreds of thousands of people play it, which isn’t too bad,” Professor van der Linden says.
“We’ve been able to entertain and hopefully also inoculate people.”
Inoculating against COVID misinformation
Coronavirus misinformation, Professor van der Linden says, relies on some tools of persuasion more than others: fearmongering, fake experts and conspiracy theories.
Dr Aechtner, who’s been studying the strategies of Australian antivaxxers for years, says the same.
“The main principle is conspiratorial thinking — that your rights are being taken away or something is being hidden,” he says.
“That’s front and centre now in messaging on COVID.”
He points to a recent One Nation poll that asks people whether they agree with mandatory vaccination — something the Government has already ruled out.
The suggestion, Dr Aechtner says, is that authorities will not let people choose whether or not they will get the vaccine — their rights will be taken away.
Another typical piece of antivax misinformation is the false rumour that a 30-year-old Alabama nurse died after getting the Pfizer vaccine.
The misinformation combines fearmongering with a conspiracy theory that important information is being hidden from the public.
The frontline worker had been one of the first in Alabama to receive the new Pfizer vaccine. Given the importance of the occasion, local TV crews attended.
She got the shot, fronted the cameras, and then fainted.
She soon recovered and told reporters she was fine, but by then it was too late.
No amount of fact-checking or debunking appeared to make a dent in the conspiracy theory (bolstered by an alarmist video showing her televised collapse) that she had died.
Soon she was being harassed on Instagram, with thousands speculating about her death in the comments below her posts.
“You’ll expect stories like that in Australia,” Dr Aechtner says.
“We know this is coming.
“You can use international stories like that to inoculate people against future stories.”
A global program
Professor van der Linden and others are calling for a “global vaccination program” against misinformation — and it will require more than online games, he says.
He’s been working with Google’s technology incubator “Jigsaw” and Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, an Australian psychologist at the University of Bristol, to develop and test a series of short animated inoculation videos.
Like the games, these are designed to prime the watcher to subsequently spot similar misinformation techniques online.
“That could be deployed on the internet widely,” Professor van der Linden says.
Though misinformation typically spreads online, the effects will be seen on the ground in the next few months in Australia — in the medical practices and clinics tasked with administering the vaccine and answering people’s questions.
The best strategy, says Melbourne GP Dr Stoupas, is to set a good example and focus on the benefits of vaccines — the fact that they can potentially stop a pandemic.
“A lot of patients ask me am I going to get the vaccine?” he says.
“And I say, ‘Absolutely, I am going to get it.'”
“If I can do something to reduce the risk of an infection, then why would I not?”
— to www.abc.net.au