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Many Teachers Still Hesitant Over Coronavirus Vaccine


Still, there are many teachers who are reluctant to get vaccinated. And part of the problem is that there's been a flood of misinformation, disinformation, especially targeting people of color, who may have legitimate reasons to be wary of the vaccine. Joining us now to talk about that is Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which tracks disinformation.

Welcome to the program.

IMRAN AHMED: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So there has been a big push to counter disinformation in this country, part of it by the United States government. But Facebook, Google and other players in Big Tech recently have also tried to counter vaccine disinformation. You did a study over the summer that looked at what was out there. What did you find?

AHMED: We found that there is a vast amount of disinformation about vaccines. And I say disinformation advisedly. It's not just misinformation, which is wrong information about vaccines. This is deliberate stuff being placed by an anti-vax industry comprised of relatively large companies which are selling their own products - quite often, sort of snake oil, false cures, subscriptions to special information services, which are, in fact, full of nonsense. But they're preying on the millions of people in the U.S. and U.K. who are just scared and kind of looking for big answers. And we found that that industry is now - it's accrued followers numbering 59 million people across the U.S. and U.K.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What kind of claims are they sort of making, and how are they trying to, you know, push this disinformation and try to get people not to take the vaccine?

AHMED: Well, look. My team in October managed to attend one of their private conferences where the world's leading anti-vaxxers got together and talked about what their messaging would be. And what became clear is that there are only three messages. One is that COVID isn't dangerous. Two is that vaccines are unsafe. And three is that you can't trust doctors, all three of which are patently untrue.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is their goal? Is it ideological? I mean, are some of these - you know, is it financial, solely, or are there other motivations at play here?

AHMED: Well, we categorize four different types of motivation. One is economic, and that is the majority of the people in the anti-vax industry - are economically motivated players. They're hucksters. They're spivs. The second is power - so trying to gain influence over people, trying to make them distrust other sources of information. The third is negative social potency, which is people who just like causing chaos. And the fourth is that they're just misinformed. And there are people who are fundamentally misinformed in order to seek their own - you know, they're trying to reconcile the tension between the fact that they know that they believe something that is very unusual and their desire to be normal. And so to do so, what they do is try to persuade other people of their point of view.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So Big Tech is obviously a big part of it, but I've seen some of this stuff get passed along in emails, texts, WhatsApp group messages. I mean, what do you suggest needs to happen?

AHMED: The biomass of misinformation out there is primarily, actually, on social media platforms where people can be presented with evidence points, so they typically tend to go and corroborate the information. And there's an array of fake news or misinformation sites which look like real science but actually are full of misinformation. They're preached and proselytized on social media platforms, not forgetting that most of the social media platforms - so WhatsApp, for example, is owned by Facebook.

The vast amount of misinformation originates from spaces and actors who are known to us. So a very small number - 10 people - account for half the following of anti-vaxxers on - in those social media spaces that we described as being 59 million strong. So 29 million follow just 10 people, and the fact that they still have their platforms on social media tells you all that you need to know. You would not give a program on NPR to an anti-vaxxer to preach misinformation to people. Why are Facebook profiting from that traffic?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Imran Ahmed of the Center for Countering Digital Hate.

Thank you very much.

AHMED: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.