Planned or not? An often neglected question around COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories
Written with Atinuke Akande-Alegbe
“Nobody can convince me to take the COVID-19 vaccine. I don’t trust the government to give me anything that is free and good for me. Nothing is free in Nigeria. I know they want to insert a microchip in us so that they can control us”, Mary said.
“I would rather travel to Ghana or Dubai to take the vaccine than take it here in Nigeria. I trust the vaccine itself, but I don’t think the one they’re giving us here in Nigeria is real”, Babatunde said.
These are statements from Nigerians when asked if they would take the COVID-19 vaccine. This doesn’t come as a surprise considering the amount of misinformation about the vaccine online.
Transformative and fast tool, with a caveat
The internet has transformed the communication landscape around the world. It has led to unparalleled opportunities to seek and share information quickly and easily. Including those related to health.
But it has also accelerated misinformation and how individuals engage with health content. The spread of misinformation during disease outbreaks is an important global issue.
Misinformation during outbreaks includes false claims around treatment, vaccines, prevention, and transmission. They also revolve around government and corporate conspiracy theories around a disease.
These can be dangerous and can cause confusion and panic. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak in Nigeria, at least two people died after drinking saltwater. They believed it would prevent them from getting the disease.
Nigeria recorded its first confirmed case of the coronavirus in February 2020. This has been followed by an increase in fake news about COVID-19. As with other disease outbreaks, the COVID-19 pandemic has had people searching for answers.
They look for answers to symptoms, cures, spread, and ways the coronavirus might affect them. It is then no surprise that misinformation has flooded the internet. This may be because of the many unknowns of the disease, as the world continues to learn about the virus.
The information gaps around the virus created an opportunity for misinformation to thrive.
Misinformation and conspiracy theories about the vaccine may be responsible for vaccine hesitancy. In 2003, the polio eradication efforts in Nigeria encountered a major challenge in some states. Some parents refused to allow children to take the vaccines. This was because of rumors linking immunization to infertility.
Misinformation around vaccines is not peculiar to Nigeria. Kenya faced similar challenges when there were claims that vaccines have ‘family planning’ infused in them.
Pre-vaccination campaign efforts in Nigeria
The months before Nigeria received its first batch of vaccines was critical to a successful vaccination campaign. Before vaccine distribution starts, it is important to get ahead of negative narratives that may arise. Already, there had been misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines in Nigeria. First, were claims that Bill Gates offered House of Reps members a bribe for speedy passage of compulsory vaccine bill. Another was around COVID-19 vaccine trials.
The National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) shared accurate information with various leaders and influencers. They used radio, TV, social media messaging, town hall meetings to achieve this.
They also targeted media professionals, traditional and religious leaders, entertainers, healthcare workers. Other government organizations contributed in pushing messages around the safety of the vaccine.
Africa Check and Nigeria Health Watch also debunked false COVID-19 vaccine misinformation. NPHCDA launched a campaign, #YesToCOVID19Vaccine, to encourage uptake of the vaccine in Nigeria.
A different type of weak link
Dr. Sani Aliyu served as coordinator of the Presidential Task Force on COVID-19. He said one of the lessons learned during Nigeria’s COVID-19 response in 2020 is the need to engage influencers. He said most of the messages came from government agencies. But with time they realized the need for messaging to come from trusted influencers.
We are as strong as our weakest links when it comes to epidemic preparedness or response. But what if the problem comes from the strong links? Influential leaders with millions of followers on social media who misinform their audiences.
In May 2020, Femi Fani-Kayode, a two-time Minister accused the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation of plotting to depopulate the world using the COVID-19 vaccine. His basis for this claim was the foundation’s work in the promotion of family planning across the globe. He claimed the National Assembly was in on it by speedily trying to pass a COVID-19 vaccination bill.
With over a million Twitter followers, the three tweets in the thread had over 7920 engagements (Retweets, Quotes, and Likes). This is outside the total views of people who didn’t engage. These tweets are shared beyond Twitter and could have contributed to vaccine hesitancy.
Nearly two months later, a tweet from him claimed Melinda Gates wanted blacks vaccinated first. The tweet had a total of 1725 engagements. However, her response to a TIME interview was taken out of context as shown in this Reuters fact check. She said there’s a need to prioritize people of color after health workers in the vaccine distribution. The reason is not far-fetched. There’s evidence that COVID-19 unfairly impacts people of color more. This could be because of institutionalized racism.
He tweeted an image of him taking the AstraZeneca vaccine in March 2021. Here, he claimed the vaccines were not Bill Gates’ vaccines and neither are we being used as Guinea pigs.
He also claimed the vaccine was different from “exploratory” vaccines from the World Health Organization. Again, thousands of users engaged with the content, with many agreeing with him. Others who felt he should know better called him out for misinforming his audience.
As with other claims, the last was baseless. COVID-19 clinical trials on the clinical trials website didn’t specify participants’ race. Even the first person to receive the vaccine in the world was an elderly woman in the UK. Moreover, the basis of clinical trials is to first establish that the vaccines are safe for humans.
It also establishes vaccines are effective against specific infectious diseases like COVID-19. Data/reports from these investigations are presented to WHO and agencies like Food and Drug Administration in the U.S. or the European Medicines Agency. They only approve after objective peer and independent reviews.
Also, the vaccines pass through Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control for approval. “The WHO has no business conducting clinical trials. It is the companies behind the interventions that apply for approval to WHO, FDA, or EMA,” says Paul Adepoju, a science reporter with Nature and Community Manager at the International Center for Journalists crisis reporting forum.
Searching through the last 3200 tweets of a former lawmaker, Senator Dino Melaye using Tweetbeaver, 20 tweets contained “COVID 19”. Further analysis of the tweets shows two were anti-vax tweets. In the first tweet, he called on Nigerians to join him to resist COVID-19 vaccine trials in Africa. Four months before the tweet, he had 982,000 followers (December 21, 2020) as shown by the Wayback Machine.
This was the closest snapshot of his profile by the website. Currently, the video has garnered over 25,000 views and 5351 engagements (which includes likes, retweets, and quotes). He also shared the video on his Facebook page with over 700,000 followers. It currently has 59,000 views, 843 comments, and 3700 likes. Again, this claim wasn’t based on any evidence of malicious intentions targeting the continent as vaccine trials started in the UK and Brazil even before South Africa.
His second tweet in December 2020 outrightly called for the rejection of the vaccine. He claimed it’s impossible to develop a vaccine in just a year. He also said efforts to do the same for cancer and diabetes have not been successful for years. It’s been watched over 75,000 times with 4000 engagements.
This is outside other social media platforms where it will be shared including closed messaging platforms like WhatsApp where it’s difficult to track engagement. A reverse image search on the video using Google Image Search and TinEye showed no results.
Again, there’s no evidence for this claim, and it was fact-checked here. Vaccines are for infectious diseases which cancer and diabetes are not. Even though there are talks of vaccines for both (here and here), they are mostly for treatments. Vaccines are made to prevent the disease from occurring in the first place.
Pastors David Oyedepo and Chris Oyakhilome asked their followers to avoid the COVID-19 vaccine. They are not very active on social media. However, their messages reached millions of their followers through physical gatherings and TV broadcasts. Excerpts are also shared on different social media platforms.
At the 40th anniversary of his church, Oyedepo admonished his members. “Let me warn you against this deadly thing circulated around the country because it has not been duly tested. An elder of this church, who works with the World Health Organisation, confirmed this, thanking me for always speaking the truth about the authenticity of the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said.
He further said, “They should come and find out from us how to deal with coronavirus at no cost. If I bless your bottle of oil, no matter who you are in the world, and you are a child of God and you take a shot of it, tell me where they will find coronavirus. That is my area, that is my calling. Be careful of that deadly thing called a vaccine, be careful.”
People act on these messages as shown by this respondent in this video. She said she won’t take the COVID-19 vaccine because her pastor said so.
Messages such as this can hinder efforts by public health institutions to prevent the spread of the virus. It can further build distrust between the government and the people. Fani-Kayode’s claim, for instance, that the AstraZeneca vaccine is the only effective vaccine could be problematic if Nigeria receives another brand from the COVAX facility.
While it may not be exactly established if they financially gained from the buzz created by these messages, it is a fact that controversy can be a publicity strategy. For example, archive.org shows that Fani-Kayode’s Twitter followers jumped from 958,000 to over one million between September 25th, 2020, and June 2nd, 2021.
Also, Melaye’s followership went from 982,000 in December 2020, about four months before his first anti-vax tweet to 2.6 million followers at present.
The motives behind sharing health-related misinformation vary. Some share false content unaware of its inaccuracy while others intentionally create and circulate false content to confuse, mislead, or for other gains. Therefore, it is crucial to convey facts and ensure the dissemination of correct information. Like Fani-Kayode, some people were initially against the vaccine and spread misleading information around it, they eventually took it.
However, the damage had been done as many may have been convinced through their previous actions or words not to take it. Fani-Kayode’s Twitter thread where he claimed “Bill and Melinda Gates want to kill millions with their evil vaccines” garnered over 7920 engagements while the thread of him taking the vaccine garnered only about 593 engagements. This goes to show that sometimes misinformation spreads faster than the truth.
The fight against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is an aggressive one — one that requires everyone to play their role. To return to our normal lives, we must increase vaccine acceptance and uptake. Reducing or stopping the spread of COVID-19 vaccine misinformation is one major way to go about it.