Martin Shelley comments –

It’s hard not to see the 24/7 transmission of disinformation swirling around the covid-19 pandemic – promoting the unhinged worldviews of lockdown sceptics, anti-vaxxers and covid deniers, all stemming from the largely uncensored transmission of ‘alternative facts’ on social media – as being as big a threat to public health as the virus itself.

As the director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO) put it last year, “We’re not just battling the virus. We’re also battling the trolls and conspiracy theorists that push [disinformation] and undermine the outbreak response.”

This global ‘infodemic’ has grown exponentially since the threat of covid-19 first emerged a year ago, but it’s by no means a new phenomenon – in the US, evidence emerged in early 2019 of anti-vaxxer activists using private Facebook groups to convince mothers not to vaccinate their children, and using social media to harass doctors who didn’t share their views.

More overtly, fringe academics and oddball celebrities have proved all too keen to jump on the bandwagon to lazily confuse and mislead, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Twitter addict Donald Trump’s thoughts on injecting disinfectant and bathing in UV light to recover from the virus variously amused or distressed many last year, as did Kanye West’s dismissal of a potential vaccine as “the mark of the beast”. Kim Kardashian’s partner went on to assert, “They want to put chips inside of us.”

Former Oasis member Noel Gallagher insisted in a podcast last September that, “There’s too many fucking liberties being taken away from us now… I choose not to wear [a mask].” A view clearly shared a week earlier by Stone Roses frontman Ian Brown, who tweeted, “No lockdown no tests no tracks no masks no vax,” before berating “the lame stream media [who] discredit those who can smell and see through the government/media lies and propaganda”.

The impact of these celebrity influencers’ musings  – or those of more controversial covid deniers like David Icke who, according to The Jewish Chronicle, suggested that Israel was using the pandemic to “test its technology” – is hard to measure, but their collective stance has been bolstered by more articulate expressions of non-conformity emanating from seemingly establishment voices.

The former British supreme court justice Jonathan Sumption, for example, claimed last October that the UK government was behaving like an authoritarian regime when it introduced emergency measures that were “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country”. At pains to stress that he was no covid-denier, Sumption’s opinion nevertheless surely offered a green light to all anti-mask wearing and lockdown-hating libertarians.

Fringe academics are also having some success spreading the sceptic message, gaining access to BBC outlets in the process. Sunetra Gupta – a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Oxford University and co-author of the Great Barrington Declaration (which promotes the concept of herd immunity during the pandemic), who told Investors’ Chronicle last month that she was “quite mystified” that her research had been suppressed and vilified – was recently given a platform on Radio 4’s Today programme to question the impact of the new covid-19 strains and the need for lockdowns.

Notions of herd immunity and shielding the vulnerable are also being championed by Karol Sikora, an oncology professor at the private University of Buckingham, who has appeared on Radio 2 and Politics Live in the past six months to argue his case, which in the past has included a denunciation of the NHS as “the last bastion of Communism” 

The explosion in social media use over the past decade has been the main driver of disinformation across many sectors but healthcare has been the worst affected, especially since the pandemic began, and the policies of the main service providers, wittingly or otherwise, are still enabling this phenomenon.

At the beginning of December Facebook appeared to change its tune, announcing it was to ban debunked claims about the safety of vaccines being used against the covid-19 virus, but only last week The Guardian reported that some accounts on the site were still promoting falsehoods relating to those vaccines, and that prominent anti-vaxxers banned from Facebook had simply switched to using Instagram, which is owned by… Facebook.

And, in the past ten days, one Facebook group has featured images from videos filmed undercover by covid deniers and lockdown sceptics at more than 30 hospital and testing sites across England and Northern Ireland. The footage – shot mostly in deserted outpatient or reception areas, and often at night – was part of an apparently co-ordinated campaign to ‘prove’ that the NHS is not under pressure.

This despite statistics from Public Health England currently showing positive test results surging, a daily covid-related death rate of more than 1,300 and almost 32,000 infected patients occupying hospital beds – and also despite ‘major incidents’ being declared at hospitals across London and the South East in the past week. 

One popular claim among sceptics is that there is little photographic evidence of patients suffering from the virus. But one NHS consultant – Dr David Oliver, who has worked on a covid ward for the past six months – told The Lowdown that even footage by teams from the BBC and ITN has failed to convince the deniers he regularly encounters on Twitter of the severity of the pandemic, with some even suggesting that the patients, doctors and nurses featured were merely actors.

“The idea that deniers should have direct access to covid wards – ignoring infection control measures, compromising confidentiality and upsetting relatives – to get some sort of ‘proof’ is just insulting to the families of people on those wards,” said Dr Oliver. “But the threat is always there that deniers will try – hospitals are of course huge, public buildings, too big to police.

“The problem is that these people have a disconnect with reality, nothing will convince them – they won’t believe the statistics, they can’t cope with facts. We even had one patient – who almost died – telling us he didn’t believe the virus existed.”

One issue identified in a paper on online disinformation two years ago – by Data & Society founder Danah Boyd – was that of ‘data voids’, spaces on the internet where an absence of regularly updated and reliable content allowed conspiracy theorists to populate those spaces with disinformation.

In the US, the Centre for Countering Digital Hate has been monitoring the activities of anti-vaxxers during the pandemic, clearly keen to exploit those data voids, and noted that leading activists held a private online conference last year on strategising public anxieties to undermine confidence in vaccines.

The concept of ‘vaccine hesitancy’ stemming from online disinformation is well-established, having been identified by the WHO two years ago as one of the ten greatest threats to global health, and its influence is already evident in countries like France, where a recent Ipsos survey found that only 40 per cent of the population would get a covid vaccine when it became available. French Facebook group Les Vaxxeuses, set up by scientists to counter fake news, even found claims on social media that covid vaccines would turn patients into genetically modified organisms.

For perhaps the best rebuttal of the current wave of disinformation surrounding the pandemic, point by point, The Lowdown recommends readers check out an excellent piece in The Guardian, published just last week, and written by Jeeves Wijesuriya, a junior doctor working at a London hospital and a member of the Healthcare Workers’ Foundation.


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