The attacks on phone masts and the spreading of anti-vaxx conspiracies are all part of the same strain of misinformation. But is evidence-based reality going to make a comeback?
There have not been too many encouraging graph lines in recent weeks. One that does offer a breath of optimism, however, is the slight downward curve that implies one of the most toxic trends of our times the anti-vaxx movement might just be in retreat. The shift is incremental, but in a UK-wide survey in mid-March, 7% of people insisted they would refuse to have a coronavirus vaccine if one were available. By early April, with hospital wards and mortuaries filling up, that number had dropped to 5%. Perhaps vaccine conspiracy cannot bear too much pandemic reality.
As with the strategies against the virus itself, however, the response to any likely cure seems likely to vary from country to country. A similar survey in France, also conducted by the London-based Vaccine Confidence Project, suggested 18% of people would refuse a vaccine, while in a poll in New York, the city worst affected by the pandemic, 29% insisted they would not consent, a number that may render any programme ineffective.
The depth of misplaced fear about vaccination which remains one of the unambiguous triumphs of global public health has been further illustrated in widely shared remarks from lockdown. Novak Djokovic last week volunteered that he would have to think seriously about whether he could even carry on playing tennis if a vaccine were to become mandatory to travel. The rapper MIA went further in informing her 650,000 Twitter followers melodramatically, that if I have to choose the vaccine or a [location-tracking] chip, Im gonna choose death.
The most prominent American anti-vaxxer, Robert Kennedy Jr, meanwhile, amplified an unhinged conspiracy that believes Bill Gates is using the virus as part of a supposed plot to control the worlds population through immunisation.
All pandemics trail a ready market in superstition, quackery and prejudice a sense of powerlessness generates in some the need for catch-all theories, however deranged. At the time of the great plague in London, the spread of miracle cures and scapegoating prophecy was almost harder to contain than the infection itself. As part of its strategy the government was moved, Daniel Defoe reported in his A Journal of the Plague Year, to suppress the printing of such Books and Pamphlets as terrify the People. The efforts to prevent the spread of damaging conspiracies across our own media have shared a similar profile and often a similar success rate to the efforts to curb the disease.
In this respect, the pandemic is something of a test case for the social media monopolies of Silicon Valley to deliver on their widely trumpeted commitment to slow the spread of dangerously false information. After being confronted with the evidence of manipulation in the elections of 2016, and the spread of such vile conspiracies as that which argued that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, Facebook and Google and the rest have been forced to step up efforts to monitor and block extreme misinformation campaigns on their various platforms. Arguably, that effort is finally starting to show some effect.
Counterintuitively, some evidence for that might be found in the response to the most pernicious of the current conspiracies which has, entirely without scientific foundation, sought to link the spread of coronavirus with the rollout of the 5G data network. The real-world effects have been the acts of vandalism and arson against mobile phone masts in the past weeks. Up to 50 such attacks have been reported, mostly on Merseyside and in the West Midlands, including the burning of the 5G mast adjacent to the new Nightingale hospital outside Birmingham.
Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/26/5g-coronavirus-and-contagious-superstition