Boris Johnson must do more than cut anti-vaxxers' oxygen of publicity

Boris Johnson must do more than cut anti-vaxxers' oxygen of publicity

Catherine Neilan

09:03 10th November 2020

During last night's press conference, both Boris Johnson and Jonathan Van-Tam treated the spectre of anti-vaxxers with the same disdain Margaret Thatcher gave terrorists in the late 1980s.

The former prime minister believed that a broadcasting ban on supporters of the Provisional IRA in Sinn Féin would starve them of the "oxygen of publicity". It's an argument that still gains tractions in many quarters: during the row over Brexit in the recent years since the referendum, more than a handful of Conservatives have suggested that the risk of violence caused by changes to the border on the island of Ireland would go away if only the pesky media stopped talking about it.

But Thatcher's approach never really worked: using actors to replace the actual voices of Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and others simply opened the situation up for ridicule. It might have allowed some in Westminster to dismiss them as having no support, no political strategy and being little more than common criminals,but it wasn't until the root causes were grappled through the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement that some semblance of peace was established.

The principle is not, entirely, a bad one. There is an argument that still wages about how much airtime Nigel Farage was given, and whether his multiple appearances on high profile shows on the BBC and elsewhere amplified the arguments that led to Brexit. Similar points can be made about Donald Trump and the direct publicity he gained through Twitter with his 89 million followers.

But flipping that argument around, you could equally ask whether they would be as popular with bookings teams or the general public if they weren't saying what many people are thinking. You only have to see that with former White House strategist Steve Bannon's continued support in the US, despite the efforts to remove him from most outlets.

While their arguments may have travelled further, the two seismic votes of 2016 were not caused by the media granting these men platforms, but because what they were saying resonated with so many.

Like Mo Mowlam and the many others involved in the peace process, we must address the problems rather than trying to cover up the resulting anger.

It's one thing to try this kind of theory with the culture war. It is another to do it with public health. Which is why I was surprised that during last night's press conference the deputy chief medical officer Prof Van-Tam gave short shrift to the very real problem of anti-vaxxers. The internet is full of conspiracy theories ranging from the one about Bill Gates trying to inject the world with a microchip to dangerous side-effects.

The anti-vaxxer movement has a long history, with most roads leading to Andrew Wakefield, the doctor who was struck off the medical register due to his involvement in a fraudulent study that falsely claimed a link between the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. That this report is more than 20 years old goes to show just how insidious the problem is, and how seriously the movement needs to be taken.

Once upon a time, it was on the fringe of society but with lockdown providing ample opportunity for people to fall down digital rabbit holes, these myths have gone mainstream. A poll taken this summer found that almost a third of British people would definitely not have a coronavirus vaccine or are not sure whether they would. If that number is not brought down it could have real implications for the success of a vaccine if - as is not yet clear - it helps to prevent transmission.

"Vaccine misinformation has been out there ever since the first vaccines were made and it is exactly that, misinformation, and I don't propose to give it any further airtime," said Prof Van-Tam.

Much of the rest of the press conference was spent playing down what the vaccine means for the here and now, amid concerns that compliance will start to falter if people believe there is an imminent breakthrough.

But the good news from Pfizer that its vaccine that can prevent 90 per cent of people catching Covid-19 appeared to prompt another wave of theories surging across social media, with people questioning the timing of the announcement just after Joe Biden claimed victory in the US elections, alongside the re-awakening of older myths.

The world has some months before a vaccination programme can begin. Rather than airily dismiss it, the Government and its scientific advisers must use that time to grapple with the problem of anti-vaxx conspiracy theories - perhaps working with independent fact-checking organisations such as Full Fact and trusted media, such as it is these days, like BBC Reality Check.

In trying to allay concerns that have been ignited by misinformation, officials cannot simply appeal to people's heads. If campaigners have learned anything from the 2016 referendum and to a lesser extent Hilary Clinton loss, it is that bombarding people with facts - particularly gloomy ones - does not work. To win you need a better story than the other guys, and at its most simplistic, a better slogan. The people who came up with Get Brexit Done and Stay Home, Save Lives need to be put on the case and the message that vaccines only made available once they have cleared multiple scientific and safety hurdles needs to be distilled and pumped out relentlessly.

It will be hard to persuade those who have been convinced that there is a conspiracy afoot that the reality is far more mundane. As I've argued before, we are hard-wired to seek stories as explanations for what is happening as respite from the reality of life which is far more chaotic. But doing nothing and hoping the problem will go away is not an option.

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Tags: Vaccination Coronavirus Boris Johnson Conspiracy theories