By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

(Originally published on January 21st 2021)

“Any rumor… that is deemed important or pertinent enough to provoke a fearful reaction is likely to be retold,” wrote professor Dr. Jon D. Lee in in his book Epidemic of Rumors. /SUBMITTED

COVID-19 conspiracy theories—even recycled ones from previous epidemics—fill an information void; they empower and impart belonging, and they feed vaccine hesitancy.

In a recent study, Understanding Vaccine Hesitancy, McGill University and University of Toronto researchers tracked Canadians’ views of the COVID-19 vaccine from April until the end of November. Sixty-five per cent of Canadians said they intend to get a vaccine; 15 percent were unwilling, and 20 percent were unsure.

Of those against the vaccine, 77 percent cited safety and efficacy concerns, and even when told the vaccine would be 90 percent effective with few side effects, their views remained unchanged.

Those who were initially unsure (but not opposed), were more willing to get the vaccine after learning about the effectiveness and safety.

Those against the vaccine were likely resistant because they didn’t trust the information provided by pharmaceutical companies about the vaccine, the study stated.

After surveying 40,000 Canadians and analyzing 277 million social media posts on Twitter, Reddit and Facebook, the study concluded distrust of experts was the strongest determinant of vaccination hesitancy. Conspiratorial thinking came second.

Some of the most enduring conspiracies imply government deception, political intrigue, and misconduct. For Interim B.C. Liberal Leader Shirley Bond, truth, data, and transparency are the solutions.

“People need a real sense of certainty, they need to know that there’s a plan,” she said. “If you give people the information, it helps make the why clearer to them, and it helps inform their personal decision.”

People who lack social power are especially susceptible to conspiracy theory, said Dr. Jon Lee, a Suffolk University folklore professor specializing in rumors and narratives during epidemics and author of An Epidemic of Rumors.

“It provides a voice for them that gives them power.”

Conspiracies can also convey identity and belonging.

“Believing in the conspiracy theory gives someone a sense that other people are believing the same thing I do,” said Lee.

A successful conspiracy theory also fills an information void.

“The distance between the time a pandemic arises and the time that science or medicine can give an answer is sometimes enormous, and the public wants information now, so conspiracy theories are an easy thing to turn to,” he said.

When people can’t easily access reliable information around vaccines and when mistrust in actors and institutions related to vaccines is high, “misinformation narratives rush in to fill the vacuum,” according to a report by First

Draft, an international non-partisan network that helps build resilience against harmful disinformation on social media. The challenge for information providers—reporters, fact checkers, governments, health bodies—is to find the data deficits, prioritize them, and act fast, the report stated.

“It’s really hard for somebody who doesn’t trust the government and the experts, to listen to what I’m going to say,” said National Advisory Committee on Immunization Chair Dr. Caroline Quach-Thanh, a pediatric infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at Montreal’s Sainte-Justine Hospital.

A popular anti-vaccine conspiracy posits that Big Pharma is pushing the vaccines to make money in collusion with government.

“I have no ties with industry. The only reason I’m for the vaccine is that I look at the data,” said Quach-Thanh. “I think if we are able to stop this pandemic, it will be due to the vaccine.”

Irresistible Fake News
Getting ahead of a conspiracy is not easy; stopping it after it’s out the door, is pretty much impossible.

“Fake news spreads more quickly and more easily than the virus, and can be just as dangerous,” World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said last February.

Conspiracies have been around as long as humans. In 1832, German writer Heinrich Heine was in Paris during the devastating cholera outbreak when rumours circulated that the death and sickness weren’t from randomly transmitted disease but rather due to men who were deliberately poisoning the water and food sources.

“Men who seemed suspicious were searched and woe to them when any doubtful objects were found on them. The mob threw themselves like wild beasts or lunatics onto their victims.” wrote Heine. Ultimately, six suspected poisoners were literally torn apart by crowds before a newspaper article set the facts straight: there was no poisoning, no poisoners, the deaths were all from cholera.
Lee called that the ‘deliberate infector’ narrative or, in modern lingo, the super spreader.

“People who purposely spread the disease either because they have it themselves, or because they’re trying to kill other people,” he said.

Some narratives repeat from epidemic to epidemic, such as those with racist undertones, said Lee.

Asian people were implicated in SARS; with H1N1, it was Mexicans, and in 2020, it was the “China Virus.”

“We keep having these same things that we return to, over and over again,” Lee said. “It’s almost like you take the narrative from a previous outbreak, take out the name of the disease, and just plug in the name of the (new) disease, and circulate.”

Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]