Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts COVID-19 Vaccine Conspiracies & the Next Wave of Disinformation
COVID-19 Vaccine Conspiracies & the Next Wave of Disinformation

COVID-19 Vaccine Conspiracies & the Next Wave of Disinformation

We can and must get ahead of this one—our immediate future depends on it

December 6, 2020

Post by Clint Watts

The final wave of 2020 disinformation is here: COVID-19 vaccine disinformation has risen sharply in the past two weeks, steadily overtaking conspiracies about election rigging and voter fraud. Mitigating this next wave of targeted nonsense will be the most important counter-disinformation effort this year and in 2021, essential for the health of our democracy, but also our economy and each of us individually. The steep increase in vaccine fear-mongering could be felt first in Europe, where the absence of a presidential election dominating headlines has allowed for political leaders to recognize how conspiracies about vaccines might prevent nations from escaping the grip of the pandemic. Boris Johnson has already vowed in the U.K. to combat vaccine disinformation, but it’s not clear what exactly the plan for countering conspiracies will be after Western institutions have suffered years of degradation at the hands of fake news and media manipulation. But there’s some good news here in America.  

The silver lining of 2020 being a peak year for health disinformation is that the U.S. has become more prepared and will be more resilient to this coming wave. An ounce of prevention equals a pound of cure, and the U.S. government, social media companies and civil society would be well served to immediately redirect its election 2020 counter-disinformation efforts to counter vaccine conspiracies percolating online. Doing this requires the U.S. to understand where COVID-19 vaccine conspiracies arise from and what scenarios might unfold in the coming months.

Twin Forces Creating the COVID-19 Vaccine Disinformation Storm

COVID-19 vaccine disinformation presents a tough challenge for Western governments because it intertwines all of the ripe veins for flooding isolated citizens, trapped in their homes, displaced from work colleagues, glued to social media facing disorienting, conflicting information about their individual health and that of their loved ones. Vaccine disinformation pushes fear-based messaging (calamitous narratives) inducing panic and opening the way for people to consider false information they’d normally ignore. Vaccines have been a controversial social issue since the early days of the Internet and COVID-19 in general has been the most politically charged topic during the 2020 election cycle—a combination creating powerful conspiracy theories. Finally, there are high financial stakes involved with the successful development and deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine. Intense competition is occurring between companies, countries and those anti-vax adherents and conspiracy influencers peddling bogus cures over the Internet, a profitable grift dating back to the start of the lockdowns.

Beyond the ability of COVID-19 disinformation to strike on so many polarizing fault lines, vaccine disinformation has the potential to be more potent as it builds from twin forces—legacy online anti-vaccine communities and other malign actors who’ve pushed COVID-19 disinformation for months to achieve their strategic goals. Anti-vax activist groups have proven to be some of the most prolific and resilient misinformation spreaders over the last decade. Rebutting their conspiracies with science and facts has proven ineffective in quelling the passions of these adherents. Dr. Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital, recently discussed his years combating vaccine disinformation on NPR’s Fresh Air, illustrating how resilient these communities are to confrontation with science and evidence contrary to their beliefs. Separately, we’ve repeatedly seen since the pandemic’s onset the power of health disinformation to capture the American consciousness, the most notable being the social media phenomenon “Plandemic,” which featured a controversial researcher, had high production value, and immediately piqued the suspicions of anti-vax communities and families tired of lockdowns.  

The availability of existing grassroots anti-vax communities naturally ushers in a broad set of malign actors seeking to nudge these grassroots communities in pursuit of one of the three “Ps” motivating disinfo peddlers: politics, profits and popularity. COVID-19 has shown for months to be a divisive issue in both international and domestic politics. Immediately following the onset of the pandemic, a global information war broke out. China, the source of the coronavirus, sought to paint the virus’s origin elsewhere, possibly the U.S. 

Whichever country can escape the clutches of the pandemic first will have a major advantage nationally and economically. Though the Western world appears to be collaborating quickly to bring a vaccine to the public, behind the scenes there’s an international race to be the first to develop and deploy a vaccine. Since the outbreak, a behind-the-scenes cyber war has brought Russian and Chinese hackers to the servers of Western vaccine companies seeking intellectual property and insights on how to accelerate their nation’s vaccine development. Russia muddied the water via state-backed media with a decidedly anti-U.S. slant to promote its own Sputnik V vaccine, which it rapidly deployed with limited trials. Today both Russia and China deride American vaccine development in hopes of harming U.S. citizen confidence and sullying America’s image globally. China’s propaganda has little reach in the West and no merit. Russia, however, has a more sophisticated network into Western minds with information pathways stretching across the Western political and social divides. The U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center outlined earlier this year how this web of disinformation has been particularly invasive during the era of COVID-19. 

Sadly, here in the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic has morphed from a national challenge needing to be overcome to a political issue employed by candidates and parties to pursue their electoral goals. Protests over lockdowns, deliberations over economic stimulus, public smears targeting health experts and contentious fights over mask mandates have left the country caving into an avoidable and more deadly second wave of the pandemic. Trust in government institutions and officials has likely never been lower. Add to this that corporations Pfizer, Moderna, Astra Zeneca and others will lead the way with vaccine solutions. This brings an added dimension exacerbating vaccine disinformation: business competition and conspiracies over fears of corporate negligence or orchestration all in the name of profit. Throughout the pandemic, allegations of surveillance and secret elites have roiled conspiracy circles. Outlandish claims that vaccines are subterfuge for injecting microchip tracking devices into Americans have proliferated across fringe news sites. With social media influencers amplifying these outrageous claims to up their following, the coming weeks and months seem prime for an outrageous, updated set of conspiracies.  

Vaccine disinformation, if not preemptively mitigated, can and will have far greater consequences for the U.S. and the world than much of the other disinformation collectively observed this past year. On the more acute and dangerous end of the spectrum, there’s an immediate need to detect and defend against a violent attack or threatening mobilization on health care workers, vaccine distribution points and vaccine companies. We’ve seen the Pizzagate attack in 2016, QAnon-related debacles in recent years, the burning of 5G towers over COVID-19 fears and a militia plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan disrupted in October. There’s ample reason to believe some Americans might resort to violence based on vaccine conspiracies. Perhaps slightly less dangerous but highly detrimental to inoculating the country would be an attack on the vaccine supply chain. COVID-19 vaccines require low temperatures for transport, the use of special containers and a deliberate warming process before injection—all represent vulnerabilities that a mob or a maniac might interrupt, further slowing distribution and hindering America’s recovery.  

Beyond acute attack scenarios, disinformation peddlers have already begun to undermine confidence in the efficacy and safety of vaccines. This will only increase as the first individuals receive doses, and we should expect salacious claims of people falling ill or dying from the vaccine. These claims could prove to be true on some occasions, but anti-vax enthusiasts, nation states seeking to cause the U.S. harm and sophisticated manipulators seeking financial gain will make it difficult to ascertain the reality of any such claim. These same perennial social media manipulators might possibly use manipulated media or a deepfake video to incite fear and panic across the population. Separately, conspiracies about elite profiteering, a surveillance state and government control will accelerate. The cumulative effect of this disinformation could be a delayed rollout of the vaccine or enough Americans refusing to be vaccinated preventing the nation from reaching herd immunity. Ultimately, disinformation narratives are like Mad Libs–conspiratorial templates where the bogus claims stay the same but the characters and issues change. We know who the most prolific disinformation peddlers are and what they are going to say, let’s prepare to counter them now before they even say it.

The three former presidents offering to receive the vaccine on camera offers an excellent example of how the employment of positive influence can be used to restore confidence in the public. But this cannot be a one-time thing. A daily, public administering of a COVID-19 vaccine to key influencers across all industries and strata of society must be employed to match and overtake the bombardment of vaccine disinformation most Americans will receive in their feeds. Social media companies, rather than shuttering vaccine conspiracies in a  platform-by-platform based on differing standards, could demonstrably help the West by working quickly, and together, to adjudicate and eliminate harmful, false conspiracies undermining medical science and health safety while collectively protecting free speech. Lastly, the vaccine companies and their distributors should rapidly and aggressively increase their public messaging and transparency regarding vaccine development, testing and safety. This should not be just a stiff podium briefing pointing to statistics and graphs, but instead something an average American consumes in 90 seconds on a smartphone—a NowThis-style video from trusted medical experts. In conjunction, U.S. government agencies, medical associations and vaccine companies should immediately establish debunking websites, prepare counter-disinformation messages from respected outlets and platforms to refute vaccine conspiracies. The Department of Health and Human Services and the Center for Disease Control could partner with the Department of Homeland Security to transition CISA’s “Rumor Control” website to debunk vaccine conspiracies. 

In short, disinformation researchers, government entities, social media and other private companies alike all just worked on counter-disinformation efforts for the 2020 election. These efforts could be pivoted toward something more important—the health, future and vitality of our country. We can and know how to counter the coming vaccine disinformation wave—let’s do it now. There’s no more time to wait.