More than 600,000 Americans have already lost their lives from COVID-19 and our epidemic is still far from over. The virus has an ally in the forms of defiance—defiance against social distancing, contact tracing, masks, and most recently, vaccines. Such opposition here concentrates mostly in deep red states in the South, the Heartland, and Mountain West regions—areas where COVID-19 is rising yet again, especially where vaccinations rates are low and the Delta variant dominates.
This week, the Biden administration recognized how misinformation contributes to the staggering public health impact of COVID-19, with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issuing his first advisory, warning about the power of vaccine myths when they are amplified on social media sites, and the president himself warning about the spread of misinformation and calling on tech and social media companies in general, and Facebook in particular, to work harder to limit it.
But those calls are insufficient, and fail to acknowledge how the anti-vaccine movement has expanded and globalized into an anti-science evil empire. Taking this on will require something far more ambitious.
In fairness, the U.S. Surgeon General’s advisory is an important step for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). In the past, when I have attempted to warn about anti-vaccine disinformation, including a 2017 article entitled How the Anti-Vaxxers Are Winning, their response was that by writing such an article I risked “giving oxygen” to anti-vaccine activities or providing undue attention. At least now, our public health leaders recognize the threats from misinformation and are willing to warn the American people of its dangers.
A decade ago, or perhaps even five years ago, a U.S. Surgeon General advisory might have helped start efforts to counter anti-vaccine or anti-science disinformation, or what the World Health Organization now refers to as “the infodemic.” But at this point warning about social media, and providing a potential tool kit for family and health professionals to recognize how misinformation operates, won’t suffice. The stark reality is that years of silence from our public health agencies has enabled something far worse.
If the Biden administration is serious about combating anti-vaccine and anti-science disinformation as a means to raise COVID-19 vaccination rates or achieve compliance with non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), it must recognize the following realities.
Yes, the social media companies have been slow to halt the infodemic. But the president’s swipe at Facebook (“they’re killing people”) was off-target. All of the techs and social media outlets are culpable, and in my opinion one of the greatest offenders is Amazon—now the largest promoter of fake anti-vaccine and dangerous COVID-19 conspiracy books. Ultimately, focusing primarily on social media fails to address the source of the disinformation.
Instead, there must be engagement and willingness to counter an evil empire with three heads. I compare this to Ghidorah, the three-headed dragon fighting Godzilla and other animated characters.
The first head is the anti-science disinformation campaign from conservative news outlets and political leaders on the right. Anti-vaccine rants are now regular features on Fox News and other conservative channels, as are efforts to downplay the severity of the COVID-19 epidemic or discredit NPIs. Unfortunately I’m a frequent target. This month’s CPAC conference was a horror show of pundits and even elected members of the U.S. Congress working overtime to discredit the benefits and safety of COVID-19 vaccines. Anti-science focused on vaccines was first adopted by the far right in 2015 through a “health freedom” campaign, but tragically it has since become a major platform of conservatism in America.
The second head is the one that provides the misinformation the far right and others use to weaponize health communication. These are the many non-governmental, anti-science organizations that monetize the internet through advertising or selling products. The Center for Countering Digital Hate estimates that the top 12 of these organizations have tens of millions of followers on social media, while producing films and books, with outreach that extends globally. In terms of those that go after me and other scientific colleagues, I agree with the ‘disinformation dozen’ list, but there are also many others.
Finally, there are the state actors. Both U.S. and British intelligence have called out the Russian government for its effort to flood our media and internet with anti-science messages and activities. In the U.S., they often operate through propaganda arms such as Russia Today or Sputnik News to create wedge issues. Anti-science is not their only approach but is one that dominates.
Bottom line: This monster is much bigger and formidable than Facebook or social media.
If the Biden administration is serious about countering anti-vaccine disinformation it must be willing to take on the empire and launch a counteroffensive. To begin, we must understand that the Department of HHS and its agencies are ill-equipped to do this alone. Instead they must seek advice from outside the health sector in order to fully understand the options and levers available to make inroads against this adversary. They must learn from those experienced in combating global threats such as terrorism or cyberattacks. For that reason, I have recommended to the Biden administration that they immediately establish an interagency task force with representation from the departments of Justice, Homeland Security, Commerce, State, and HHS to find a way to defeat Ghidorah.
The evil empire will not stop at COVID-19 vaccines and prevention. It is just the beginning. The bad guys know we are a nation built on science and technology. The question is, are we willing to fight to protect American science from the three-headed monster?