Vaccines and Social Media
The amount of wrong medical information on the web is frightening.
In a recent column (“Anti-Vax Reversal?,” June 8), I ended with the hope that a vaccine for COVID-19 might be developed quickly. Scientists are working on many possible vaccines in an amazing time frame. Our government has partnered with multiple companies to make a vaccine available for Canadians, and the Americans have implemented “Operation Warp Speed” to bring a vaccine to Americans quickly. While there are still numerous issues to solve, it may be that we will have a safe and effective vaccine in remarkably short order.
In that column, I ended with the line, “Maybe this [pandemic] will finally put an end to the anti-vax movement and cause us to act out of love for our neighbour by being inoculated.” Boy, was I wrong! From what I see in media reports, the anti-vax movement, particularly on social media, has strengthened rather than waned. The amount of wrong medical information on the web is frightening. For those putting their lives on the line fighting the pandemic, this is a massive concern. In recent polls, 33 percent of people in the United States and 23 percent in Canada said they would refuse a vaccine for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Since COVID-19 is a new disease, vaccine development has had to start from scratch. It is crucial that the process be transparent, and that the result is a safe, long-lasting and successful vaccine. Our society has developed many such vaccines, and the process is well established, clear and overseen by experts in most developed countries.
What has changed is our distrust of authorities and scientific experts, fueled by rumours and false information widely disseminated on social media, a communication method not available in the past.
Before Gutenberg invented the printing press, print media was rare, and only a small percentage of people could read and write. When printed materials became more available, literacy increased, but the tools to print were limited. Bibles in the common tongue made it possible for people to develop their own interpretation of Scripture, but they could only share their interpretation with people they could contact; there were limited publication channels.
Today the internet has lifted this restriction on who can widely send out information. You no longer need a printing press, a photocopier or a fax machine to make multiple copies. Any social media account will give you access to large numbers of people. This has incredible benefits, but it can also be used by people to send out any information whatsoever, whether true and false.
The filters that existed before the internet are gone, and a system that had checks on the content of messages is no longer effective. This allows rumours and misinformation to spread widely on social media platforms, from individuals but also from organizations and countries that want to destabilise our communities – foreign meddling in our elections is just one example. How to protect our freedom to communicate while combating false and hateful messages is a new problem that we are all grappling with.
A second and related consequence of the internet is that individuals can easily find others with similar beliefs and effectively form virtual communities. In the past, individuals with false information (that vaccines cause autism, for example) were isolated, but now, on the internet, they form closed communities that reinforce and support each other. The widespread access has led to groups that build complex conspiracy theories with no basis. One example that has become a concern in churches is the QAnon community.
As a follower of the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6), I can’t help feeling sad when I see so many led astray by conspiracy theories and false information on the web. Act out of love for your neighbour, wear a mask, and when it becomes available, get the vaccine; I will.