How PR can fight fake news about vaccinations

The rise of the anti-vaxxer movement is becoming an increasingly important communication challenge during the vaccine rollout. From viral memes on social media, to protest marches, anti-vaxxers have dramatically increased their online and offline presence during the pandemic.

With high-profile celebrities such as rapper MIA and Black Panther star Letitia Wright spreading vaccine misinformation, the debate has reached a mass audience as never before.

It is estimated that the biggest English-language anti-vaxxers' social media accounts have a global following of 59.2 million people. Whilst the opinion polling in the UK shows that the majority of the public (67%) have either received a vaccine or intended to get fully vaccinated as soon as they can, this still leaves a significant minority who haven't and don't intend to despite a year of promotional campaigns from the Government. Considering the growing challenge, here are five top tips for combating anti-vaxxers online.

1. Don't treat all anti-vaxxers the same

It is important not to treat anti-vaxxers as a homogenous group with a single consistent set of views. They can be divided into hard and soft anti-vaxxers. Hard anti-vaxxers oppose using vaccines because they believe they are inherently unsafe and infringe on individual rights and liberties.

Soft anti-vaxxers have legitimate questions about how Covid-19 vaccines have been trialled, tested and have an uneasy sense that the process has been rushed through and not backed up by sufficient clinical evidence. When using PR and communication techniques to combat the anti-vaxxer movement, the soft anti-vaxxers are the key target audience we stand a chance of convincing through medical education. The hard anti-vaxxers are surely a lost cause and not open to persuasion.

2. Don't engage directly with hard anti-vaxxers

Getting into online arguments with anti-vaxxers risks spreading the misinformation further. When credible parties acknowledge a conspiracy theory, it unintentionally lends it credibility and raises its profile. When the R&B singer-songwriter Nicki Minaj tweeted a conspiracy theory about the Covid-19 vaccines causing a cousin's friend’s testicles to swell, she was swiftly condemned by chief medical officer Chris Whitty, who said she should be "ashamed" of her comments. Whilst professor Whitty's response was undoubtedly well-intentioned, attacking a Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theory lengthens its time in the news cycle and gives it extra headlines and column inches.

3. Create credible counter voices

The Center for Countering Digital Hate has been working with the mayor of London Sadiq Khan, medical experts and celebrities like Rachel Riley on a #DontSpreadTheVirus campaign. Online advocates can be a great way to tackle misinformation. The campaign uses an evidence-based approach to countering the scourge of misinformation online, using a combination of social media messaging apps and traditional media. The range of advocates also enables the campaign to reach various audiences harnessing trustworthy sources to develop a compelling counter-narrative.

4. Establish a digital dialogue

Public health information campaigns often suffer from a one-way, top-down communication style that fails to engage people. Using online Q&As with leading medical experts and setting up Facebook and Instagram live streams can help foster a more inclusive conversation based on two-way digital engagement. A recent paper in The Lancet has suggested that more participatory community engagement is needed to tackle Covid-19 vaccination fears effectively. This is particularly important as soft anti-vaxxers are often alienated from traditional health, economic and political structures due to social and health inequalities.  

5. Creatively target the underrepresented

There has been low vaccine take up in the Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) community and those aged 16-34 in the UK. Increasing uptake involves using celebrity adverts, viral social media videos and community champions to encourage take-up using a multi-pronged approach. Former athlete Denise Lewis and comedian Romesh Ranganathan have appeared on TV adverts urging people to get vaccinated in the UK. Using community champions on a grassroots level is crucial to make the communications tactics authentic, bottom-up and relatable.

Written by Karen Winterhalter, managing director at marketing agency Onyx Health