Emotion VS Truth: Anti-vaxxers do not believe in mainstream media.

During the Covid-19 crisis, the BBC moved into overdrive to cover every aspect of the story to deliver on its remit of public journalism. However, a report shows anti-vaccine conspiracy accounts grew continuously by nearly 50 per cent over the year. Have we entered an age in which facts no longer matter?

 The anti-vaccine organization “Stand Up X” in Central London shares its message about freedom, anti-Lockdown, masks, and coronavirus. (photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona)

It was an ordinary weekend. Grace Baker-Earle, a 15-year-old using a wheelchair after suffering from Covid-related sequela was assisted by her mother into their car. She had just received her first dose of the Covid vaccine at the Cardiff Bayside Vaccine centre. Suddenly, about 15 strangers surrounded them in the car park, waving slogans and shouting in their faces.

These strangers were anti-vaxxers. They believe Covid vaccines are killing people and action should be taken to stop the vaccine. Knowing Grace had completed her vaccination, one of the protesters rushed at her. He was only two feet away from Grace when her mother ordered him to step back.

“The confrontation was horrible and incredibly intimidating, and I feel incredibly unpleasant and disgusting”, said Angela, Grace’s mother, to the BBC: “I said my daughter is using a wheelchair because of Covid, but one of them just responded to me that Grace will have natural immunity, I should not be using her as a ‘lab rat’.”

Although one steward of the vaccine centre came out and checked that Angela and her daughter were safe, no one was arrested. “People were so dismissive of such a serious thing we are dealing with, which makes my blood boil,” Angela said.

Both research and clinics have verified that Covid vaccines play a vital role in protecting the public. According to a report by the UK government, Covid-19 vaccine programs prevented more than one-hundred thousand deaths and more than twenty million infections. For the vulnerable group of people over 65 years old, the report also confirms over fourteen-hundred thousand hospitalizations have been avoided in England.

But the passion of anti-vaxxers has never vanished. In its report, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that Covid is a growth opportunity for anti-vaxxers. 409 English language anti-vaxxer social media accounts under investigation now have 58 million followers.

Alistair Coleman, who works at the BBC to restrict the spread of misinformation, explains the BBC pays large attention to fact-checking work in every respect and has created several groups for such responsibilities. These actions aim to provide more reliable sources for people to trust.

However, he also admitted the effect is limited. The BBC’s top misinformation specialist reporter, Marianna Spring, shows anti-vax activists are exploiting medical and political debates on Covid jabs, resorting to violent rhetoric on and offline more than ever.

One study of anti-vaccine psychology found it is not sufficient to only provide truth to anti-vaxxers. One strategy widely used now is repeating evidence as clearly and deftly as possible to opponents. However, the approach has been confirmed to be useful only when the listener is open-minded to different opinions.

Christopher Giles, a former member of the BBC’s fact-checking group, also believes this is not easy work for journalists and mainstream media to pursue. And they may need to consider more complex situations.

He said: “I think how to persuade people to believe the reliable source is a difficult question to answer. Although giving people the right information is a good step, there are lots of different circumstances in which people might have held anti-vaccine views. It depends on the foundation of views, like some people have a generalised distrust of medicine based on personal experience.”

Josephine Lukito, an assistant professor at the University of Texas, reveals this phenomenon is related more to emotion than to facts. She said: “Much research has found if you want to be persuasive, or if you’re trying to correct misinformation and be persuasive, you have to tap into that emotional component.”

Lucy Johnson, a supporter of the Covid vaccine and Cardiff University Master’s degree student, believes her family story illustrates that truth is not the only element in overcoming the gulf between right and wrong perceptions.

Lucy grew up in a family facing contradictions in medical treatment. Lucy thinks this might be the reason why her parents ended up divorced. Her mom has a long history as an anti-vaxxer while her father is a scientist with a strong belief in science.

In Lucy’s memory, her mother not only opposes the Covid vaccine but also did not trust any other kinds of medical vaccines, like the MMR vaccine (vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella), during Lucy’s childhood.

For many years, Lucy’s family has tried to persuade her mother using reliable evidence but have never been successful. During the Covid crisis, the vaccine became a big topic of conversation. Lucy and her family tried to discuss the vaccine with her mother, but the results were the same.

Lucy struggled in the past because her mother’s misguided beliefs had a negative impact on Lucy’s upbringing up until she began to live with her father. She said: “We didn’t really go to the doctor when I was a child. If it was something serious or a disease happened, we used more home remedies and alternative medicine to make ourselves better.”

When Lucy contracted a disease at university that could have been prevented by a vaccine, she followed her father’s advice to go to the hospital. She said: “I was 21. And I got MMR. I didn’t know that I wasn’t vaccinated while growing up, until I went to the doctor and they said this is the reason why I had the disease.”

But this episode never changed her mother’s opinion on vaccines. Lucy said: “It’s really hard to change someone’s mind when they’ve had those beliefs for, you know since probably the 80s or 90s. So, it is not goanna happen in a short time.”

“She has never changed her perspective. She thinks forcing people to regularly get vaccinated is psychological control. These are all government powers centralising to achieve their certain goal – making sure that we all stay submissive, as a population, like a dystopian technocratic future.” Lucy said.

Mainstream media’s attempts to expose new evidence of anti-vax leaders’ mistakes and attack widely accepted anti-vax statements have the opposite effect on Lucy’s mother. Lucy said: “When reliable evidence is linked to discredit anti-vaxxers, she will think it is a media conspiracy. Like Andrew Wakefield, who is the representative of the MMR anti-vaccine movement. When he was exposed, she insisted he was an honest man doing good work.”

Lucy made more serious attempts to persuade her mother by almost threatening their parent-child relationship. Lucy said: “I think if I argue with her, this will destroy our relationship. I tried to be diplomatic, because my brothers and sisters will get into arguments with her. She also realised in the past couple of months that this was becoming a big problem. I said to her, ‘if you keep talking, I won’t call you.’ She still wants to keep in contact with her children, so she realised at that point she needs to be more careful.”

But Lucy is concerned that if she still cannot change her mother’s mind, even meeting family members could increase her mother’s risk of developing the disease because she is not vaccinated. Also, if her mother falls ill, the side-effects of alternative therapies might harm her.

She said: “I would feel very guilty if the worst situation happened. And her choice makes me angry and concerned that if I meet up with her I might give her Covid. Now she is almost 70 and she is in the group of people that maybe could die because of this virus.”

Lucy still wants to find a suitable strategy to help her mother, saying: “One time I saw her buy medicine that used a horse to prevent Covid. So, I want her to trust me enough that she can tell me at least if she’s doing something dangerous or stupid.”

One study shows that to help persuade anti-vaxxers, one incorrect cognition should first be broken. This is frequently seen as opponents cannot discern reliable sources regarding the disease. Conversely, they are clear on which content has been fact-checked by mainstream media.

Save Our Rights, the largest organization of anti-vaxxers in the UK, argues on its website that all content sharing by officials, like the media, NHS and the government, is related to business. To find the truth, people need to educate themselves and hold independent beliefs. Also, the cover of Issue 12 of The Light, an inner exchanged publication of Covid anti-vaxxer groups, contains the slogan “Journalists put media in the dock.” 

But these self-educated materials and process reflect many problems. First, Lucy thinks the self-education process aims to prove one’s own opinion rather than seeking answers. She said: “It’s strange. If I say new evidence that contradicts my mother’s opinion, she will say that is a conspiracy. Normally, when you talk to someone, they can take in new information, but my mother already has an answer for everything.”

In addition, Dr Lukito believes the anti-vaxxers’ material shows low-quality analysis. She said: “One of the most common refrains or statements that you might hear from someone who is vaccine sceptical is to do their research. But ‘research’ is a vague term.”

“Their concept of doing self-education sounds like a good idea. Like everyone should be doing research and being responsible. But the underlying assumption behind that is people must know how to do the research, which means knowing what sources to read are valuable and what sources are not valuable. But the quality of their work is very low quality and none of them had peer-reviewed work.”

Lucy believes this kind of meaningless work fills anti-vaxxers with false confidence, as her mother sees the movement as protecting her family. She said: “I think she will always be trying to change our minds. She sends me lots of opinion pieces, medical studies, even videos from weird doctors, and always says these people are very credible experts.”

Dr Hornsey’s experiment shows the main reasons that people do not trust vaccines. They are impacted not only by ‘surface attitude’, such as believing the “vaccine is toxic”, but also ‘attitude roots’, like social identity, ideologies, and fears. Thus, understanding the root of anti-vaxxers’ opinions is the most efficient way to cope with the issue.

Dr Lukito thinks fear is the main root reason to focus on. She said: “A lot of the medical misinformation is driven by the fear of lacking fact. There was not a lot of information about Covid, especially at the beginning of the pandemic. So this tends to encourage people who are interested in filling this void with inaccurate information.”

In addition, Dr Lukito believes much of the misinformation seizes upon people’s emotions. She explains: “Fear and anxiety are two really important discrete emotions for spreading misinformation. There’s been research to show emotional factually incorrect information will spread faster than factually correct information.”

“When people hear a story which contains misinformation, they don’t get the name or there’s no verification. But if this kind of story has a deeply emotional component, like a child has got this incurable disease and the listener also has children, it is easy to make the listener believe it is real,” said Dr Lukito.

For example, Lucy’s mother shared misinformation about the vaccine’s side-effects on women’s health in order to persuade her daughter. Lucy said: “She was sending me lots of articles about how it caused inflammation of the ovaries and the reproductive organs because it would affect women’s ability to have children.”

Dr Lukito also believes social connection spreads misinformation. People are more likely to believe a statement when it is relayed to them by someone they are familiar with. She said: “It is one thing if people see information online, and it’s another thing if your friend tells you. But all the information your friend got is from online. So, there’s still risk because people are just in a filter bubble of sorts.”

She also pointed out this situation will cause closed information cycle communities, explaining: “Like in a small town or a community, if there’s not a lot of reliable information to get filtered through the folks, and Covid scepticism will be exchanged there.”

Likewise, Lucy said: “My mother only made friends who agree with her on Reddit. They talk vaccines or the government or whatever they agree on with each other.”

Finally, Dr Lukito thinks social identity determines which information people will care about and believe. She added: “Identity impacts not just on opinion but on the kind of information that people pay attention to, and that ultimately influences the kind of content that people share.”

In terms of social identity, Dr Lukito believes one old point of consensus should be disregarded. In the past, people thought the low-educated are more likely to believe medical conspiracy theories and fake news, while, in fact, everyone can believe such things.

She said: “Anyone can accidentally believe in misinformation. I’ve seen PhD students on Twitter who share factually incorrect information. Just because one person is an expert on one thing doesn’t mean they are an expert on everything.”

Lucy also agrees the reason for her mother’s issue can be found in her personal experience rather than her education level. She said: “My mother is a highly educated person. I think a lot of middle-class women like to be different. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they understood well enough to know their own bias. And for my mother, that was where it started because a lot of people believed at the time these thoughts are important.”

However, according to Dr Lukito several elements here are still lacking reliable survey, such as age group, except for the content mentioned above. Thus, to more effectively help anti-vaxxers change their direction, our society needs to research and consider more deeply the real challenges of this group.

Lucy believes as a family, the first step is understanding rather than blaming. She said: “I’ve determined conspiracy theories are filling a hole in someone’s life. A lot of them came from loneliness and fear during the pandemic.

“If people have a nice life, and they’ve got friends and hobbies, they will not sit at the computer for a long time and read conspiracy theories. So, if you can’t make them change their beliefs, maybe you can make them less intense.”