A well-organised network of international anti-vax accounts is pumping harmful vaccine misinformation into Africa’s social media ecosystem, threatening to undermine the continent’s fragile COVID-19 vaccine rollout.
More than 1,000 misleading reports on coronavirus conspiracies, false cures and anti-vaccine messages have been debunked by fact-checking organisations since the start of the pandemic, and COVID-19 information has been shared or viewed over 270 billion times across the 47 countries of the WHO African Region, according to the UN.
While some misinformation is homegrown, the bulk of it comes into Africa via a well-organised network of anti-vaxxers in Western nations.
In March, the biggest vaccine rollout in Africa's history will begin as the World Health Organisation (WHO) aims to immunise 230 million vulnerable people through its COVAX scheme. In the grips of an extremely aggressive second wave, the challenges ahead are immense, as a dangerous new variant of coronavirus tears through South Africa and the continent-wide death rate soars.
Most countries have not disclosed their vaccine rollout plans, but alongside COVAX, the African Union (AU) has secured a provisional 270 million vaccine doses from Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson for distribution across member states in 2021. Both initiatives fall short of achieving the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s goal of vaccinating 60% of the continent’s entire population within two to three years though, which will require at least 1.5 billion vaccine doses at a cost of up to $16 billion (about £11.8 billion).
This week, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned of a looming “catastrophic moral failure,” if rich countries continue hoarding vaccine doses, while vulnerable people in low-income communities the world over suffer. COVID-19 has already pushed the number of people across the continent living in extreme poverty to nearly half a billion, and without a successful vaccine rollout, countries will face both humanitarian and health crises.
The WHO has warned African countries are “far from ready” for a successful COVID-19 vaccine rollout, as governments struggle to address mistrust in communities and build the supply chain infrastructure needed to transport temperature-sensitive vaccines to remote regions that lack reliable electricity.
On top of the immense challenges associated with vaccine procurement and distribution, African countries face another uphill battle, as a tsunami of misinformation, falsehoods and propaganda threatens to erode public trust in the vaccines needed to save lives.
“The anti-vax movement is well funded, extremely well organised and middle class, and the middle class bit is important because it means people have got time on their hands...the impact of their work is actually on low and middle income communities and - especially now - communities of colour,” Andy Pattison, who works as the team leader for the WHO’s digital channels told VICE World News via videoconference.
The stories gaining the most traction are shaped around themes of experimental testing and population control, in what public health workers say is an attempt to prey on the continent’s painful history of medical colonialism.
“We regularly detect deliberately engineered misinformation from international vaccine-critical accounts in online conversations in Africa,” said Angus Thomson, a senior social scientist working in vaccine demand at UNICEF.
“They're narratives that touch on colonial historical legacies in countries, like the idea of Africans being guinea pigs for vaccines. Because of that context, those who write or reshape these narratives understand it’s likely to resonate and be shared.”
Analysts at Novetta, an analytics firm that monitors traditional and social media in 54 African countries, had the same worrying findings.
“The foundational misinformation came from the West... memes and new-age social media efforts were passed around showing how Africans aren’t going to stand for ‘curing the world’ this year. It has an anti-Western focus, all the way to this idea there’ll be the extermination of a certain group by whoever is in control of the vaccine,” said Rhys O’Neill, a Public Health Analysis Coordinator at Novetta.
Emblematic of these trends is a story that surfaced in September 2020, which claimed a “racist” experimental COVID-19 vaccine was coming to African countries. The posts focused on the drug Covifor, which is not a vaccine, but rather a treatment for COVID patients with severe symptoms that has been available in 127 countries since June 2020.
Fact-checkers debunked the claims, but that didn’t stop a picture of the injectable treatment with the label “Not for Distribution in US, Canada or EU” alongside the caption “Wake up Africa, this is not a cure but a trap to kill you” from going viral on social media in Anglophone and Francophone countries including Kenya, Ghana and Benin.
As wealthier Western nations continue to pre-purchase and stockpile vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, the Africa CDC is being forced to look for alternative suppliers.
Neil Edwards, an open-source analyst of African Media at Novetta, told VICE World News that this international competition surrounding vaccine procurement has been a catalyst for disinformation coming into African countries from Russia and China.
“It’s quite telling that from the beginning of the pandemic to when Pfizer first made its announcement, Russia’s Sputnik V was the most discussed vaccine on the continent, even after they only had an early clinical trial of 76 participants. It speaks to the success of their disinformation campaigns, and the grip they have on African traditional and social media,” he said.
“Russia knew that once Western countries started purchasing vaccines, they needed to win this game in Africa for international recognition. It’s a big win for them if they can take the African market.”
Edwards said China’s efforts have taken the form of a “public-relations offensive,” as state-owned news outlets circulate reports that China’s SinoPharm vaccine has advantages over the vaccines being developed by Western companies like Moderna and Pfizer.
These competing narratives, according to Edwards, are sowing confusion and “pushing people toward vaccine hesitancy,” as they struggle to discern fact from fiction.
China has long positioned itself as a lifeline for African countries during the pandemic. In August, Chinese President Xi Jinping promised that African nations would be given “priority access” to China’s COVID-19 vaccines, and from March to mid-October, Beijing and private individuals, such as billionaire businessman Jack Ma, delivered hundreds of tons of medical supplies across the continent.
Through its monitoring, UNICEF has found South Africa-based Twitter accounts praising Sputnik V and casting doubt on the effectiveness of the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines, as well as false reports in Ugandan mainstream media claiming doses of China’s COVID vaccine had been purchased by the government there.
In October, the world’s most prolific anti-vax campaigners held a private three-day meeting to create a playbook for undermining public confidence in COVID-19 vaccines, according to the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), which said its researchers secured access to the conference.
CCDH reports this strategy is based on a “master narrative” built on three key themes: that COVID is not dangerous, that COVID vaccines are dangerous, and that vaccine advocates cannot be trusted.
This coordinated effort to undermine vaccine advocates is now being picked up in UNICEF’s monitoring in Africa.
“The current narrative has been retooled to focus on undermining trust in the organisations and institutions connected to vaccines. That's very smart, because what we know about vaccine decision making is that trust is the bedrock,” Thomson, the UNICEF social scientist, told VICE World News.
The anti-vax community has increased its following by 25% since 2019, gaining 10.1 million new followers, according to CCDH analysis. That growth comes as no surprise to Neil Johnson, a Professor of Physics at George Washington University who studies the online anti-vax ecosystem.
In May, he co-authored a scientific paper based on the analysis of over 1,300 anti-vax social media pages which found that while they have fewer followers than pro-vaccine pages, they are more numerous, faster growing and better equipped at reaching new or “undecided” users.
Based on theoretical modelling, Johnson found that without new interventions, the anti-vax network will grow to dominate online discussions concerning vaccines within 10 years.
His latest research charts how the anti-vax community used the pandemic to reach over 100 million undecided Facebook users globally on the issue of vaccine safety.
Johnson told VICE World News over the phone that these small well-connected pages are so effective because they use “insurgent” tactics to infiltrate new communities and broaden their reach, while flying under the radar of social media giants.
"Social media platforms keep pruning the biggest communities and wondering why it doesn't get better, but it's like knocking the heads off the hydra, the strength of these networks are the smaller communities that are just under the radar,” Johnson explained.
Public health organisations are working tirelessly to catch-up and have had to rethink the way they approach online messaging to broaden their reach and address people’s medical concerns or questions early, before misinformation takes root.
"When I present that [Johnson] study, my conclusion is basically we're talking to ourselves and the vaccine critical groups are working from a strategy. They’re more effective at reaching the undecideds and repackaging content, so that it manages to wedge its way into our values, our views, our beliefs, because it's designed to do that," said Thomson.
“The takeaway here is we need to be better, we know what we should be doing to implement an effective digital engagement strategy, it's just not prioritised and not being done,” he continued.
In December 2020, the WHO created the Africa Infodemic Response Alliance (AIRA) to pool resources between health agencies and fact-checking organisations and create a collaborative framework for combating misinformation in African countries.
AIRA’s Network Secretariat AbdelHalim AbdAllah says the alliance is dealing with a “Frankenstein of fake news.”
“Introducing a vaccine under emergency-use listing is extremely complicated. Even more so in our region, where conspiracy theories and misinformation from the anti-vax movement in the global north merges with rumours circulating in Africa,” he told VICE World News via Whatsapp.
In order to counter the influence of the anti-vax movement, AIRA plans to replicate some of its successful growth tactics.
“One thing we’re trying to do, is build similar dissemination and amplification networks so that the right content is on hand for people, so if a community leader is on a WhatsApp group and sees something wrong, they can share a premade video or use one of our templates,” said AbdAllah.
“You can no longer just post information on the WHO or UNICEF social media accounts and a rumour is resolved. On the contrary, it mutates,” he added.
The WHO, which started its infodemic response initiative in mid-April, has also shifted focus, and now relies on targeted messaging techniques to reach new users across a range of demographics.
“The [anti-vax pages] are more agile and less bureaucratic. UNICEF and WHO are big entities and we have processes. At the beginning of the pandemic, we needed broad brush messaging. What we're trying to do now is focus on target audiences and say ‘who are they, what do they want, let's find the channels they're talking on.’ That's the thinking we need to get our messaging out there,” Pattison, the team lead at the WHO’s digital channels, told VICE World News via videoconference.
The public attacks faced by the WHO from governments during the pandemic have undermined some of these efforts though, “we've spent 70 years building a brand which people trust and recognise... but there are some demographics now where things get better traction without our logo,” said Pattison.
The WHO worked quickly to flag the dangerous impacts of the COVID-19 infodemic, and put together its response initiative in mid-April. However, there was no clear playbook for health organisations or countries to draw on, and every region’s needs are different.
“We’re building the ship as we’re sailing it. COVID-19 shed light on the weaknesses we have in this space and we’re trying to catch up,” said AbdAllah of AIRA.
Thomson, who has worked in the field of vaccine acceptance and community engagement for over a decade, says it’s taken time for people to understand the crucial role it plays in combating vaccine hesitancy.
“The vaccination enterprise...hasn't been focused on the human element of vaccination. One of the challenges we’ve had is that vaccination has been an easy ride for decades, but in the last 10-20 years, we see that public confidence isn’t a given” he told VICE World News via videoconference.
“It's very hard to get people to value and understand the importance of investing in this, but a vaccine sitting in a vial is zero percent effective, it doesn't matter if we get the vials to the clinics or if the clinics have fridges if people then say no,” he added.
Thomson and his team are currently seeking funding to scale-up a collaborative initiative UNICEF has launched called the Vaccine Demand Observatory. Its aim is to create a playbook for dealing with health misinformation and equip countries with the tools, training and technical support they need to manage future infodemics.
“Nobody wants to invest in preparedness and so there wasn't anything in place that could immediately provide support to countries. One objective of the Observatory is to use COVID as an opportunity to build that capability at a country-level so we can manage the challenges of this infodemic and future infodemics in 10, 20, 30 years time.”
Thomson stressed that this is a global problem, which wealthier regions are also failing to deal with. “It’s not an Africa-specific issue,” he said. “I can’t give you a single example of a country where this is being done well.”●