Conspiratorial movements threaten the long-term health of the public, and of democracy itself

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As legal restrictions were comprehensively lifted in England on July 19th, a new phase of pandemic life has officially begun. In a nod to the previously delayed ‘roadmap to freedom’, the statutory obligations of mask-wearing and social distancing have been rescinded. Ministers caveated the ‘unlocking’ of public life with the expectation that the vaccine programme – having initially been one of the most efficient in Europe – would continue to minimize hospitalizations and death rates.

This represented a key juncture in the pandemic, because, in acknowledging the ‘weakened’ link between cases and deaths, the government was prepared to qualify freedom as being contingent on consistent levels of vaccine uptake. Indeed, in the months prior to July 19th, polling had reported increasing levels of public confidence in the safety of vaccination, with 63% reporting that they would ‘definitely’ accept the jab as a result. This too was reflected in government data published on freedom day: 87.9% of adults had accepted a first dose, and 68.5% were double jabbed. Spearheaded by the success of the vaccination programme in the spring, Britain had avoided a potentially cataclysmic situation of large-scale vaccine defiance.

The anti-vax problem lies not in its ability to mobilize opportunistic extremists, but rather in its capacity to attract the scared and ill-informed

But this has not been without worrying complications. Buoyed by a newly found freedom to gather en masse, an ominous force of conspiratorial sentiment has readily reared its head beyond the realm of social media and into real life. Recent displays of hostility in Trafalgar Square underline the increasing confidence with which fringe movements seek to undermine public confidence. Anti-vaxxers, alongside their similarly indoctrinated ‘anti-mask’ following, rely upon a subterfuge of distorted ‘research’ to advance an agenda that is as preoccupying as it is increasingly well-heard.

The anti-vax problem, though, lies not in its ability to mobilize opportunistic extremists, but rather in its capacity to attract the scared and ill-informed. The World Health Organisation has long recognized this deceptive tactic, warning in 2016 that anti-vax propagators often presented a false appearance of ‘legitimate debate’ when misquoting and manipulating well-founded scientific evidence. This analysis is irrefutably representative of the Covid-19 denialism of today, with sycophants being all too ready to latch onto the fears of the misinformed and mislead. Nazi-era symbolism, alongside antisemitic rhetoric, has been confidently wheeled out at anti-vax events. Protesters manage to twist the freedom to protest to seem somehow symptomatic of fascist persecution.  

This potent concoction of hatred and ill-conceived ignorance spells trouble not just for the immediate future of the pandemic, but for democracy itself. As extremist ideals grow more confident, they become more likely to be impassively adopted by public discourse, with the weaponization of the Covid-19 vaccine being its latest parasitic innovation. Research suggests that increased exposure to conspiracy theories fuels susceptibility to radical attitudes. Social media provides fertile ground for easy contamination. With the raid on the US Capitol happening as recently as January this year, the UK must start taking seriously the threat of a similar act of mass domestic disturbance.

The potent concoction of hatred and ill-conceived ignorance spells trouble not just for the immediate future, but for democracy itself

The role of social media is of immediate concern for public health too. The turbocharged atmosphere of online communication is designed to drive traffic to ‘clickable’ controversial posts, hence boosting engagement with malign conspiracies and incorrect information. Imposters – often claiming to be medical experts – have been known to deny the propensity of Covid-19 to harm younger people by deeming them to be exempt from illness. With the 18-25 demographic having flat-lined in inoculation rates, such misinformation could be having real repercussions on public health attitudes and decisions.

Perhaps what is needed is a serious discussion about how social media aids and abets the dissemination of fake news for economic profit. It is vital to remember that the anti-vax community alone is worth upwards of £750m to social media platforms – a damning shred of evidence on how these corporations leverage misinformation for monetary gain. Cutting out the economic incentives could, in the short term, help restrict the harmful and prejudiced trajectory of baseless conspiracy theories being shared online.

Image: Tim Dennell via Flickr

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