More needs to be done to tackle the swathe of anti-vax information on social media platforms targeting ethnic minorities, campaigners have told VICE World News.
In the UK, Black people and men of Pakinstani and Bangladeshi heritage are almost twice as likely to die from COVID-19 as white people, according to one of the many studies showing the severe impact of the pandemic on Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities. As such these communities stand to benefit from the roll-out of vaccines against the disease, but are being targeted with anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and disinformation.
It’s a serious issue: a poll published last month by the Royal Society for Public Health showed that 57 percent of respondents from POC communities were willing to take the COVID-19 vaccine, compared to 79 percent of white participants.
Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) says anti-vaxxers are “adapting their narratives” to target minorities.
In the early days of the pandemic, he says, “anti-vaxxers helped to promote a myth that African Americans were less likely to be infected by COVID to downplay its danger, but this became less common after it emerged that COVID was having a disproportionate impact on communities of colour.”
"In addition, anti-vaxxers exploit historical injustices perpetrated against minorities to stoke distrust of advocates of vaccines, including doctors and scientists,” he says.
Polling for CCDH “suggests that higher levels of vaccine hesitancy amongst African Americans may be driven by a greater reliance on social media for information, compared to the general population,” says Ahmed. “This is why social media companies’ failure to remove misinformation from their platforms is so harmful.”
Amal Ahmed, a 21-year-old member of the British Arab-African community, is an avid user of Instagram, and often uses Stories to share her views on vaccines to her 1,400 followers. She believes in “terrain theory”, a widely-debunked pseudoscientific conspiracy theory that germs don’t cause disease.
In an interview with VICE World News over Instagram, Amal says she doesn’t think vaccines are “necessary”, citing a number of ludicrous, disproven and nonsensical reasons.
Amal goes on to suggest that vaccines add “stress” to our “health industries” – but in fact the World Health Organisation lists vaccine hesitancy as one of the top ten biggest threats to global health.
When asked where she gets her information from, she points to “credible sources” including Dr Andrew Kauffman – a prominent voice in COVID-denial in the US – and Robert F Kennedy Jr, an anti-vaccine activist who believes in the scientifically debunked link between vaccines and autism – a claim widely found on social media.
“Real evidence is being hushed and censored,” she says. “I think the media are particularly misinforming in this sense, not anti-vaxxers.”
But far from being censored, anti-vaxx propaganda and conspiracy theories are still widely available online. A December 2020 report from the CCDH – “The Anti-Vaxx Playbook – notes that 5.4 million social media accounts in the UK follow accounts which spread disinformation about vaccines. The report identifies “minority anti-vaxxers” as a distinct group within the online anti-vaccine ecosystem. These anti-vaxxers “have a particular focus on promoting distrust of vaccines and the medical profession amongst racial and ethnic minorities, trading on real health inequalities and historical medical malpractices against ethnic minorities.”
Ahmed, the CCDH CEO, points to the influence of anti-vaxxers on Instagram, which “has a younger audience and is growing quickest.” As part of their research, CCDH tracked different accounts on the platform, and found that it is “more reluctant” than its parent company Facebook, when it comes to tackling anti-vaxxer superspreaders. He points to an account that CCDH tracked which was “found promoting the lie that ethnic minorities are less likely to be infected by COVID.” The account is “still active on Instagram, despite the account being highlighted to Instagram in April," he says.
A spokesperson for Facebook, which owns Instagram, says, “We're working closely with governments and health authorities to stop harmful misinformation from spreading on our platforms. We ban adverts that include vaccine hoaxes or discourage people from getting a vaccine, we remove harmful misinformation about COVID-19 and put warning labels over posts marked as false by third party fact checkers – our policies are the same across both Instagram and Facebook. Between March and October 2020, we removed more than 12 million pieces of content on Facebook and Instagram for containing harmful COVID-19 misinformation, such as fake preventative measures or exaggerated cures.”
Even before the existence of any COVID-19 vaccine roll-out, disinformation was swirling around social media, particularly Facebook and Facebook-owned WhatsApp. One widely shared conspiracy theory warned people not to take the “Bill Gates vaccine” as it contained “poison”. The conspiracy theory suggested that COVID-19 vaccine is a plot to kill Black people and will be tested in Africa first. The real danger is of rich countries hoarding the vaccine meaning people in poorer countries will miss out. Another widely shared message on WhatsApp suggested that UK health secretary Matt Hancock wanted to “target” the vaccine at ethnic minority communities first. In fact, Hancock identified a number of at risk groups – including ethnic minorities – whose vulnerability means that they should be among the first in the queue to be protected by the vaccine.
Dr Ohid Yaqub a senior lecturer at the University of Sussex’s Science Policy Research Unit says that ethnic minority communities, “may be relying more on Facebook and WhatsApp groups [to receive information.] There might be much more tight, close-knit networks, particularly in immigrant communities with few points of entry for new information to enter.”
Dr Salman Waqar, a GP in Berkshire and academic researcher at Oxford University, said that the COVID vaccine is important in these communities because the “disproportionate impact” of COVID has had a “burden on their lives and livelihoods.” For him, one of the best ways to address this issue is by “making sure that these communities do get vaccinated – which is a challenge because of the historic and contemporary barriers there.”
Laila, an 18-year-old gap-year student currently living in the outskirts of Greater Manchester and a member of the Arab community, says social media is her main source of news for anything related to COVID-19. “To be honest, the stuff I read on social media is all I have,” she says over Snapchat.
“I know you shouldn’t believe everything you read but I’m not going to lie, I read it and if it seems legit I believe it. [Coronavirus] seems fishy.” She says she has seen social media posts “about how they exaggerate the figures”. It emerged in August that patients who were successfully treated for the disease but later died of unrelated causes were listed on the UK’s official COVID-19 death count, but it is absurd to suggest that this casts doubt on the seriousness of the virus.
Laila says that she doesn’t want to be “too sceptical” but believes that COVID-19 could be used against ethnic minorities. “It makes sense,” she says. “I’ve seen stuff about that.”
Her mother is also reluctant to take the vaccine. “I feel like the older generation [in our community] are a lot more suspicious anyway.” Laila spoke to VICE World News on the condition of anonymity because her father works in the NHS.