When a TikTok user filmed himself shouting “liar” at England’s chief medical officer in a London food market this week, the video gave a glimpse of the fevered Covid conspiracies spreading among young people on social media.
Particularly in diverse parts of the capital, researchers are raising the alarm about online misinformation which is fuelling intense government mistrust and persuading Black and Asian minority ethnic (BAME) communities, already disproportionately affected by the virus, to shun the vaccine.
There are fears this is already having an impact. A study released last week by Nuffield Health, found just 20.5pc of black people had been vaccinated so far compared with 42.5pc of white people.
In North Croydon, one of the capital’s most ethnically diverse constituencies, where more than 60pc of people are from Black, Asian or minority ethnicity (BAME) communities, the medical director of the local NHS Trust, Dr Nnenna Osuji, Medical Director of Croydon NHS Trust, said: “Right now, this misinformation is costing lives.”
Inflaming distrust in government
Outside the local Croydon University Hospital, passer-by Tim* outlines the far-fetched conspiracy that he believes lies behind the Covid-19 vaccine. He speaks slowly and carefully, as if trying to explain something complicated to a child without making them feel stupid. “You need to open your mind,” he nudges.
Leaning against the wall that separates the hospital garden from the pavement thoroughfare, the 31-year-old falsely states the virus has been created by a “New World Order” to scare people into taking the vaccine. The vaccines are really an attempt to kill-off large numbers to get the human population under control and protect natural resources. He offers no evidence to support these beliefs.
Tim knows these ideas are considered conspiracies. They are entirely untrue. But false and dangerous opinions are finding new audiences as people, locked-down inside and stuck online, look for new ways to understand the pandemic. Will he take the vaccine? The short answer is no.
Ideas like Tim’s are causing deep concern among Croydon’s community leaders. “When we first did our survey, the word “culling” kept coming up over and over again,” says Ima Miah, chief executive of Croydon’s Asian Resource Centre, explaining how the false theory that Covid was a big government conspiracy to kill BAME people is a sentiment that still resonates.
Tackling online misinformation in communities like Croydon will be a major test for the Government. Conspiracies are running rampant on apps like WhatsApp and combating it requires deep and nuanced cultural knowledge.
Words such as “airborne” mean entirely different things in Bengali, while some groups, such as the south Asian Silhetti community, communicate in an oral language. “How do you get literature across to an oral language?” asks Miah. “You don’t, you have to speak to them, you have to do videos.”
One December survey, taken during an online event hosted by the Croydon BME forum, showed 34 per cent of attendees said they were not likely to take the vaccine, with 25 per cent still undecided.
The trend appears to be reflected in the number of people attending their vaccine appointments too. “We know we’re not getting the same uptake across the entire population,” says Croydon’s Dr Osuji.
At the same time Croydon NHS was brainstorming how to combat social media misinformation, the local hospital experienced first-hand what it was like to feature in a viral anti-vaccine campaign.
On Dec 30, a video was posted to the anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown Instagram page, Stand Up Surrey, showing deserted corridors inside Croydon’s University Hospital. Dr Osuji said the corridors were empty because patients were being cared for on dedicated Covid wards. “Remember that individuals won’t be allowed to just wander onto the wards,” she said.
These sections of the hospital, which are currently treating 200 people for Covid, are not mentioned in the video. “Despite the lies the Government are telling us the hospitals are not overwhelmed,” said the man behind the camera, who never shows his face. The video has been watched more than 80,000 times on Instagram alone.
Abbas Panjwani, a fact checker at Full Fact, says it is too early to understand how much online misinformation is fueling vaccine hesitancy. “However, it has big audiences. It has a lot of shares,” he says.
Conspiracies are finding fertile territory among ethnic minority groups, which have long-standing grievances about racism and medical inequality.
“I don’t trust the Government,” said Lisa*, a 45-year-old support worker, passing Croydon hospital, who has already declined her vaccine. “I’ve heard a lot of conspiracy theories,” she says, describing how six or seven warnings about the vaccine arrive every day over WhatsApp.
“Sometimes I don’t have time to watch or read them all.”
Researchers say the significance of encrypted apps like WhatsApp are making the phenomenon harder to track and understand. “WhatsApp is popular for everyone but it’s very popular for ethnic minority communities,” says Panjwani.
To study the opaque platform, groups like Full Fact have to rely on messages that are either screenshotted or forwarded to them. There’s no search function. “Our ability to see what sort of misinformation is out there and affecting certain communities is limited,” he says.
WhatsApp has tried to crack down on chain messages. After rumours spread by WhatsApp chains were linked to killings and lynching attempts in India, in 2019 the Facebook-owned company imposed global restrictions on forwarding, meaning a message forwarded five times from its original sender would be appear with a “Forwarded many times” labels.
However, still the misinformation keeps coming. Lisa* says some messages falsely claim the Government is trying to eradicate the current financial system so it can be replaced by Bitcoin; others mistakenly that artificial intelligence has made the large workforce redundant so the Government is attempting to use the vaccine as an attempt to wipe them out.
There is no evidence for any of the theories Lisa cites. But phenomenons like the pro-Trump QAnon movement demonstrate how even far-fetched ideas with no basis in reality can snowball online, eventually spiralling into violence.
Like QAnon, the anti-vaccination content spreading in Britain also features distortions that weave together misinformation and truth, making it difficult to disentangle the two.
In June, a speech by Matt Hancock triggered suspicion online after the health secretary suggested BAME groups could be prioritised for the vaccine once it had been approved by regulators, due to multiple studies showing these groups had been badly affected by the virus.
In response, a video posted to YouTube blended Hancock’s comments with false claims the Government wanted to trial untested and dangerous vaccines on Black Britons. Vaccines currently being deployed in the UK have all been approved by the medical regulator and there are currently no plans to prioritise people according to ethnicity.
“We’re not a vulnerable group when it comes to getting jobs, access to jobs, getting better healthcare, getting better social housing,” said the British person filming the video. “Wake up people, especially Africans – they’re coming for you.” So far, the video has been watched almost 50,000 times.
The anti-vaccine influencer industry
“This is not a grassroots thing of people spontaneously deciding that they don’t trust vaccines,” says Imran Ahmed, the CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH).
“This is a crisis driven by a very sophisticated bunch of actors, taking advantage of a moment in time, which they see as a great opportunity.”
Ahmed describes an industry of influencers trying to “target” anti-vaccination messages at Black Britons and African Americans. “Who’s one of the biggest proponents of the idea that black boys shouldn’t be vaccinated? Robert F. Kennedy Jr,” he says.
President Kennedy’s nephew, who has more than 700,000 followers on Instagram, has emerged as one of the most virulent anti-vaccine influencers online and his posts frequently falsely tell BAME groups they cannot trust the vaccine by referencing the Tuskegee syphilis study.
The 1932 medical study, where 399 African Americans with syphilis did not receive the correct treatment for the disease, has been transformed into an online rallying cry in both the US and UK to persuade Black people the vaccine can’t be trusted. Medical experts stress the vaccine has already been consensually tested on people from a range of ethnicities and has been approved by regulators around the world.
“Think of [targeted misinformation] in the same way that you would the marketing of the product,” says the CCDH’s Ahmed. “The people at the very top, the anti-vaxxers, they tailor their messages for specific communities… This is about the micro targeting of messaging for communities to play on pre-existing concerns that they may have.”
Croydon’s community groups, churches and mosques have been mobilising against the misinformation, holding Zoom Q&As with local doctors and sharing short videos on WhatsApp immediately debunking false claims. Already they’ve seen success. Polls consistently show a drop in vaccine hesitancy when people can put their questions directly to local medical experts.
There have also been myths about the ingredients not being not permissible in Muslim, Jewish and some Christian communities.
Miah of the Asian Resource Centre, crediting a campaign by the British Islamic Medical Association, said these beliefs had now been demystified.
But community leaders expect the problem to get worse before it gets better as the NHS tries to encourage younger people, who spend more time on social media, to get vaccinated.
“You have a lot of young people say Covid is not real,” says Andrew Brown, CEO of the Croydon BME forum, adding the group has even resorted to organising over-65 online events so the comment section on Zoom is not hijacked by young people persuading older attendees not to take the vaccine.
Croydon’s Dr Osuji reiterates more work needs to be done. “We need to get the message out around what is accurate, around what is true.”
*Names have been changed.