They warn of the danger of anti-vaccines in the fight against Covid-19

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Gonzalo López Sánchez

Updated:05/18/2020 22:26

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It is quite possible that the COVID-19 pandemic will not end until a drug solution, in the form of treatment or vaccine, is found, which would require supplying a drug to many millions of people. But when the time comes, will all these people want to take medication?

Research recently published in “Nature” has warned that there is a risk that anti-vaccine movements and conspiracy will prevail and end up posing a public health problem. Researchers from George Washington University, in the US, have investigated the dynamics of 100 million Facebook users during a measles outbreak that occurred in 2019 and have concluded that anti-vaccine groups are fewer in number but more effective that the groups provacunas at the time of spreading their message. Furthermore, they believe that history could be repeated in the middle of a pandemic.

“Anti-vaccine groups that promoted distrust of the government and medical councils, including vaccination against measles, are now doing the same with COVID-19,” Neil Johnson, director of the investigation, told ABC. Sometimes he has used mathematical models to analyze how hatred spreads on social networks. “It is the perfect storm.”

Protests against 5G technology and vaccines in Sofia, Bulgaria on May 14
Protests against 5G technology and vaccines in Sofia, Bulgaria on May 14 – AFP

For Johnson, social networks are a battlefield in which the truthful information is disseminated but in which the theories of conspiracy, false news and hatred also multiply. To a large extent, in his opinion, the problem is that networks have the ability to amplify and level any information, regardless of its origin.

The problem is that, if the anti-vaccine message is amplified, “not enough people will be vaccinated and the future COVID-19 vaccine will be useless, in terms of group immunity, “Johnson said. In fact, the conclusions of his study suggest that the disinformation surrounding the pandemic, such as that Bill Gates is going to take advantage of COVID-19 to make money or that the vaccine will inject tracking devices, are already tilting the balance in favor of do not get vaccinated.

A map of the battlefield

“You can’t win a battle without a map of the battlefield,” said Neil Johnson. For this reason, his research has attempted to draw a novel map, using mathematical tools, with the aim of analyzing the behavior of user communities on Facebook, in relation to vaccination against measles in 2019. It so happens that in This year measles suffered a considerable rebound in the United States. According to the country’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most of the 1,300 people who became infected were not vaccinated.

Map of interactions between anti-vaccine (red), undecided (green) and blue (vaccine) communities
Map of interactions between anti-vaccine (red), undecided (green) and blue (vaccine) communities – Neil Johnson

On this occasion, they examined the functioning of Facebook communities, encompassing 100 million users, from various continents and speakers of different languages. They classified these groups into three categories, based on their opinions. in relation to the vaccine: groups in favor, anti-vaccine groups and “undecided” groups, made up of groups of parents, for example. Next, they analyzed the degree of interaction between these communities.

Thanks to all this, they discovered that, although there are more people in favor of the vaccine than against it, there are three times as many anti-vaccine groups as there are communities in favor. Furthermore, they have observed that anti-vaccine groups are highly intertwined with “undecided” groups, while “pro-vaccines” stay more on the periphery and do not participate in the “battle” for information.

The appeal of the anti-vaccine message

“We thought we would see large healthcare institutions and departments at the center of the online battle,” said Johnson. But we find the opposite. They are fighting in the wrong place ‘and they are not adequately countering disinformation.

Why? In the opinion of this scientist, «the success of anti-vaccines lies in the fact that they dress their message with many attractive subjects, such as question the role of big pharmaceuticals, governments, talk about civil liberties or freedom of choice, “said Neil Johnson. “Compared to that, the groups in favor of the vaccine just talk about scientific evidence: it is a less attractive message.”

Protests against confinement in Lansing, Michigan (USA), last May 13
Protests against confinement in Lansing, Michigan (USA), last May 13 – AFP

For this reason, the authors of this study have proposed a series of strategies to combat disinformation, such as manipulating the connections between communities to limit their growth, or design tailored “vaccine” strategies for each group of “undecided”.

“Public health agencies, social media platforms and governments can use a map like ours and a whole new set of strategies to identify the most active areas on the web and find out how to neutralize these communities that they sell disinformation and are so harmful to the public, ”the researchers have proposed.

Next, they will study the relationship between these anti-vaccine messages and nationalism, racism, mistrust and voting patterns in the 2020 elections in the United States. The fact that COVID-19 is shrouded in scientific uncertainty means that the perfect storm is about to break out in the United States, according to Neil Johnson: “Many greens (undecided) will switch to reds (anti-vaccines) ».

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