16th February 2021
By Ciarán O’Connor
Throughout 2021, Digital Dispatches will publish a series of ISD briefings examining the key COVID-19 vaccine misinformation themes discussed, shared and promoted across various countries and on social media. The series will have a particular focus on Facebook communities.
It is hoped these briefings will cast light on the nature of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation and thus inform public information campaigns and promote accountability among the social media platforms being used to promote false or misleading information about COVID-19 vaccines. All briefings in the series are based on analysis of Facebook pages/public groups, using the social media analytics tool Crowdtangle as well as proprietary analytics developed jointly by ISD and CASM, our technology partner.
Nations across the world are devoting considerable resources to delivering and administering COVID-19 vaccines to their populations. Alongside these mass vaccination campaigns sit mass information campaigns designed to explain how vaccination works and the public need for them. Digital – notably social – media will be central to the effectiveness of these efforts.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the global COVID-19 outbreak is the “first pandemic in history in which technology and social media are being used on a massive scale to keep people safe, informed, productive and connected.” At the same time, however, the same social media tools being used to advocate and inform are being used to mislead and misinform people on a similarly massive scale.
The WHO refers to this phenomenon as an “infodemic.” Simply put, this is an overabundance of information, some of which is used to “disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas.” 2020 saw various coronavirus-related strands of mis/disinformation go viral and impact human behaviour and, critically, individual responses to the pandemic. The same is now happening to online discussions about COVID-19 vaccines.
Conspiratorial, extremist and anti-vaccine communities are using social media to create and disseminate mis/disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. These include sharing debunked rumours that the vaccines cause injuries or deaths; sharing baseless claims about vaccine ingredients; or promoting conspiracy theories that allege vaccines are being used for depopulation.
This kind of content poses serious threats to both societal cohesion and public health. Conspiratorial and misinforming narratives first serve to undermine public trust in institutions – here in the central governments and authorities rolling out vaccines. If they are able to undermine faith in COVID-19 vaccines to a sufficient enough degree that people become reluctant to take them, then 2021 could see a worsening of the existing egregious global COVID-19 crisis.
This ISD briefing series will give particular focus to three areas of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation:
Misinformation specifically concerning the vaccine
Claims about vaccine ingredients, vaccine production and vaccine efficacy. Also, concerns or claims about companies producing the vaccine or the pharmaceutical industry at large.
Misinformation about the process of vaccine rollout
Claims about the vaccine being mandatory for the public, challenges associated with the logistics of the mass-vaccination campaign, and claims about people suffering injury or dying as a result of being administered a vaccine.
Misinformation about the societal impact of a vaccine
Claims about requiring a vaccine passport for future travel/business, or conspiracies about supposed government-orchestrated population control by way of vaccine IDs.
Each briefing will provide an overview of the dominant themes, narratives and public figures that are receiving attention and driving mis/disinformation on Facebook in a given country. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive, quantitative analysis of all COVID-19 vaccine mis/disinformation being posted or shared on Facebook in a given country or region, and represent only a snapshot of all the data collected and analysed as part of this research. However, by examining misinformation shared in various countries or across different languages, we hope to gain a better understanding of the dominant strands of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation globally, as well as more nuanced claims and conspiracies specific to a country or region.
The first briefing in the series will look at COVID-19 vaccine misinformation in Ireland throughout January 2021, and will be published here this Thursday, 18th February. The methodology outlined below underpins all of the briefings in the series. To find out more about ISD’s Digital Analysis Unit, visit this link.
The methodology outlined here applies to all briefings within the series.
We began by identifying a comprehensive list of keywords to capture COVID-19 vaccine and vaccine conspiracy discourse across Facebook. Selection of these keywords and terms was informed by previous ISD research, in combination with insights from our regular monitoring of the coronavirus in news reports online. We aimed to only include terms that specifically relate to vaccines that have been developed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In choosing these terms, we also deliberately avoided more generalist terms associated with wider anti-vaccination activism worldwide. A sample of keywords used throughout these analyses include: Moderna; Pfizer; BioNTech; AstraZeneca; Janssen; “COVID-19 vaccine”.
We used these keywords as a seed list to search Crowdtangle for Facebook pages/public groups in various countries that posted, shared or hosted content containing COVID-19 vaccine mis/disinformation throughout 2020/21. We disregarded pages related to general discussion of COVID-19 vaccines, like news organisations or government bodies. From here, we populated lists solely with Facebook pages/public groups from specific countries or regions that were known to engage in COVID-19 vaccine mis/disinformation.
Data was collected using the Crowdtangle API, which provides data on posts made by administrators on public pages and groups across Facebook. This data includes: the text of the post, the group where it was shared, time and date of publication, any associated links or media, the number of comments, shares and reactions, and other interaction data. As the Crowdtangle API only draws data from pages and public group posts, comments, private group posts or personal profile posts are outside the bounds of analysis.
ISD analysed the full data set using a bespoke analytical platform developed by ISD and CASM. Analytical workflows in this platform have been developed specifically to analyse social media data, particularly about hate, extremism, conspiracy theories and polarisation. Individual posts are processed based on the data drawn from the API, including organising posts by linguistic similarity, aggregating posts containing the same URL, and tracking the number of posts from individual pages or groups.
Personal or identifiable information relating to Facebook users is removed to protect their identities, in line with ISD policy. In some cases, the names of pages or groups will also be anonymised. We will consider providing examples to researchers or journalists on request but do not want to amplify links to these communities due to their misleading and potentially harmful content.
Ciarán O’Connor is an Analyst on ISD’s Digital Analysis Unit with expertise on the far-right and disinformation environment online and open-source research methodologies. Before joining ISD, Ciaran worked with Storyful news agency. He has an MSc in Political Communication Science from the University of Amsterdam and is currently learning Dutch.