EDINBURGH—Ninety-year-old granny Margaret Keenan became the world’s most unlikely megastar this week when she became the first person to receive a fully-approved coronavirus vaccine in the Western world. The sweet old lady told reporters that she was so happy to get the shot, as it meant she might see her family after being on her own for nearly a year.
To some, however, the soon-to-be-91-year-old, who wore a penguin-themed charity Christmas t-shirt as she gamely received her vaccine, was the purest manifestation of their very darkest fears. Keenan, some conspiracy theorists alleged, is a crisis actor employed by the government to trick people into taking the vaccine. Others went further, claiming that Keenan is actually dead and an imposter sat in her place. It wasn’t explained what the exact point of that ruse would be.
Of course, there is no evidence to support any of the conspiracy theories around Keenan, who is just a seemingly nice, and definitely alive lady who was the right age and lived in the right place to get the first vaccination. But, as Britain was the first Western nation to grant emergency use authorization for a coronavirus vaccine, it’s also the first to contend with rampant anti-vaxx disinformation during an unprecedentedly huge COVID-19 immunization rollout.
Right now, anti-vaxx views in Britain aren’t quite as prevalent as in the United States. According to the latest polling figures, just one in five Brits said they were unlikely to take the vaccine if they’re offered it—a number which has shrunk in recent weeks. By comparison, polling released by Pew Research last week showed that around 39 percent of Americans are either unlikely or definitely not going to take a vaccine when it’s offered.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t underlying fears ready to be exploited by opportunistic conspiracy theorists. The same polling showed that 48 percent of people in Britain are worried that the vaccine won’t be safe, and over half are worried about its possible side-effects. Other research showed, when exposed to specific bits of vaccine disinformation, less than half of Brits say they’ll definitely take the jab.
Experts have said that around 70 percent of the population will need to be vaccinated before COVID-19 can be considered to no longer be a threat—a target that could easily be undermined by anti-vaxxers. “I hope that enough people take these vaccines, but I think it is going to be much more of a challenge than is recognized,” Prof. Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, told the Financial Times last week.
The University of Cambridge’s Dr. Jon Roozenbeek, who has carried out research into COVID-19 conspiracy theories, told The Daily Beast, “I’d say the anti-vaccination movement is a pretty significant problem in terms of its potential to reduce trust in vaccinations, and by extension vaccination rates, in both [Britain and the United States].”
The theories in Britain largely mimic the trusty old classics pushed in the U.S.—microchips, fetal tissue, 5G, and so on—but they are occasionally given a decidedly British twist. For example, instead of Bill Gates installing microchips in grannies for unspecified reasons, one theory accuses Boris Johnson of carrying out the scheme instead.
Earlier this year, a letter claiming to be from the PM went viral on Facebook. It said, “I am personally writing to you in order to alert you to a new government policy, in which we are proposing that all U.K. residents will be required to wear a RFID [radio-frequency identification] microchip from January 1st 2021.” If the absurd nature of the suggestion itself wasn’t the giveaway, the creators didn’t even use Johnson’s real signature.
Another theory suggested that, because Johnson’s dad Stanley wrote a book called The Virus in the early '80s, it proves that the pandemic was all part of a decades-long family plan. Perhaps the most absurd false claim that has been spread is one, reportedly pushed by Russia, that says the British-made Oxford vaccine could turn people into chimpanzees.
While in the United States, anti-vaxxing is usually associated with freedom-loving, mask-hating, Trumpist conservatives, protests in Britain have had a more leftist anti-authoritarian flavor. In fact, one of the most prominent anti-vaccination protesters is Piers Corbyn, brother of the former leader of the opposition Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn. Piers Corbyn has called COVID-19 a hoax to install a new world order, using the term “plandemic,” and was charged for his role in anti-lockdown protests this month.
Britain is also home to the king of the conspiracy theory, David Icke, who has been banned from some social media platforms for pushing ridiculous yet pervasive theories about the virus. But the focus on loud and eccentric oddballs like Icke and Corbyn risks overlooking much more dangerous and legitimate-looking sources of disinformation, which are much more likely to push people who are undecided about the vaccine to the dark side.
Over the summer, The Guardian found that engagement with anti-vaxx posts on British Facebook pages had trebled—with one of the largest sources being an alternative medicine business, with two million likes, which has pumped out dozens of viral vaccine-skeptic posts. ITV News reported research Friday showing that there are some 5.4 million U.K. followers of anti-vaccination accounts across social media.
The theories have also reportedly infected the country’s National Health Service, which has a central role in the vaccine rollout. According to the Times of London, a Facebook group containing hundreds of NHS staff was home to posts saying that the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine was a new virus, similar to smallpox, to be “unleashed” on the world.
It’s sources like these that can sway people who are undecided about getting the vaccine towards avoiding it. A paper published in Nature earlier this year warned, “Anti-vaccination clusters manage to become highly entangled with undecided clusters in the main online network, whereas pro-vaccination clusters are more peripheral.” Those experts predict that anti-vaxx voices will drown out pro-vaccination voices online in the coming months and years.
However, Britain’s health secretary Matt Hancock has insisted that the government is doing everything it can to stop the anti-vaxx movement from threatening the rollout of the COVID-19 immunization program. Last month, the government agreed with tech companies that it would flag misinformation and would expect a “timely response” for removal. Ministers are also said to get a weekly round-up of new COVID conspiracy theories to help coordinate the effort to neutralize them.
“The good news is that it’s not growing,” Hancock said of the anti-vaxx movement last week on LBC radio, without explaining what he was basing that statement on. “We monitor this very carefully and actually the number of people who want to have the vaccine is increasing, and that’s good because obviously that’s the right thing to do.”
If the government is looking for a vaccine cheerleader to fight back against disinformation, they could do worse than 90-year-old Keenan. After she took her historic shot Tuesday, she said, “My advice to anyone offered the vaccine is to take it. If I can have it at 90, then you can have it too.”