Australians are being urged to be wary of online disinformation as the federal government prepares to rollout the COVID-19 vaccine next month.
The pandemic has provided a major opportunity for conspiracy theories to flourish, sparking questions over the role of government and social media giants in shutting down dangerous disinformation.
Pew Research polling from December found 40 per cent of Americans were likely to refuse the jab, with half of those “pretty certain” no information would change their mind.
Although polling suggested Australia’s anti-vax sentiment was far smaller, the statistic highlighted the threat of misinformation accelerating online.
And with Australians set to receive their first jabs next month, the government has been urged to proactively counter conspiracies.
University of Canberra Institute for Governance and Policy Analysis associate professor Michael Jensen warned Australia would “struggle to get beyond” the impacts of COVID-19 if a large number of people refused to get the jab.
“Foreign governments, which may have an interest in seeing Australia weaker and poorer, might intentionally try to stoke concerns about the vaccines in order to sabotage Australian uptake of the vaccine,” he said.
Coronavirus vaccine conspiracies bear the hallmarks of other forms of misinformation campaigns, Dr Jensen said.
Like conspiracies surrounding 5G technology, vaccine disinformation centred on vague fears over understudied health effects and allegations of global plots.
“It also serves as a form of what is sometimes called ‘pre-propaganda’ to increase questions about experts and political authority,” he said.
“This can serve as a means to prepare the public for more direct attacks on support for political authorities and the public service experts that carry out the day to day governing of the country.”
The federal government has pledged $24m towards a public health campaign encouraging Australians to get immunised.
But Dr Jensen urged it to appoint a person specifically tasked with countering disinformation online.
Dr Jensen recommended they “show some personality” by publicly mocking and debunking conspiracy theories online.
“(There are) claims that the vaccine contains a tracking microchip, as if that is still a thing in a world of ubiquitous mobile phones, and with Google sending you monthly updates on your movements at all times,” he said.
“Such claims can be mocked as conspiracy theorists really need to update their theories.”
Tech giants have been criticised for being too passive in shutting down vaccine disinformation.
Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid warned the internet had “the potential to significantly magnify health misinformation campaigns” via advertising, celebrity influencers and people in positions of power.
“Social media companies must also acknowledge their responsibility and work actively to counter health misinformation on their platforms,” he said.
In December, Facebook beefed-up its COVID-19 guidelines after being criticised for its handling of disinformation.
The company announced users would be alerted to a mistrust they had interacted with, and the reasoning behind its removal. Users were previously given a general warning they had clicked into disinformation.
Twitter’s guidelines said users could not share “demonstrably false or misleading” claims that may lead to significant risk of harm, and would label disputed posts.
Dr Jensen told tech giants to “think about what role they wish to play in society”, saying they were privy to unique data that even intelligence services struggled to obtain.
The federal government has asked digital platforms to establish a voluntary code to counter disinformation, and help users assess the veracity of news items that appear in their feeds.
“Governments can help by assisting in the identification of organised malign actors, particularly operating from overseas,” Dr Jensen said.
“They can also make it clear that there might be regulatory consequences, or at least very uncomfortable public hearings with politicians inquiring as to why they have allowed their platforms to be used to cause harm.”
He said the government had already applied pressure on TikTok via that route, after children were tricked into viewing a disturbing suicide video spread maliciously on the platform.
‘MAKE HIM IRRELEVANT’
Dr Jensen warned misinformation surrounding the COVID-19 vaccine was not consigned to the fringes of the internet, but had seeped into the government itself.
Coalition backbencher Craig Kelly has sparked outrage by peddling spurious claims over treatments, including advocating for hydroxychloroquine, and likening compulsory mask wearing to child abuse.
Mr Kelly received more than a quarter of all interactions on Australian politician Facebook pages on Wednesday, according to @auspol-posts, an online tracking service.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has refused to publicly rebuke his backbencher.
Dr Jensen said while senior ministers rebuffing Mr Kelly would “articulate boundaries on the space of acceptable debate”, he was wary of making medical information a political battleground.
“It would be perhaps more important that other backbenchers speak out in favour of the vaccine and that media personalities on Sky and across the conservative media ecosystem speak out in favour of the vaccine,” he said.
“It is important not to get into a politicised identity battle. (We should) make Kelly irrelevant to the discussion as much as possible.”
AUSSIES LIKELY TO BACK VACCINE
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said Australians were “very positive” about COVID-19 vaccines, but conceded there was a group of anti-vaxxers who could not be convinced.
But he said authorities had to convince a group of people who had reservations about the rollout.
“There is a group in between those two extremes, if you like, where confidence is absolutely the most important thing,” he said on Wednesday.
Professor Helen Marshall, a medical clinician who has spent two decades working on community acceptance of vaccines, predicted confidence would increase after Australians began to receive the jab.
The government has twice brought forward its rollout start date, from early March to mid-February, but Dr Marshall downplayed fears the shifting time frame would undermine confidence.
“Other countries have been rolling out since December, so I don’t think we’re doing anything terribly different or concerning that would raise anxiety in the community,” she said.
“As we start the rollout of the vaccine program that confidence should increase. I think we should expect good uptake and confidence in general in Australia.”