| 6 mins read
When it comes to vaccine scepticism, right-wing narratives often predominate. Covid has mobilised both religious promoters of an imminent apocalypse and secular believers in conspiracy theories. In the US particularly, there is a trend among grassroots evangelicals of associating emerging disease with a biblically forecast end of the world.
Left-wing anti-vax movements are less conspicuous, but they exist. For example, Edward Snowden has suggested that Covid surveillance apps are a continuation of post 9/11 government surveillance associated with counter-terrorism.
But positions which were once associated with traditional left/right/religious divides have given way to views which transcend these divisions.
Vaccine hesitancy pre- and post-Covid
Outright opposition to vaccines is not a new phenomenon. Anti-vax movements long predate Covid. In the nineteenth century, organised anti-vaxxers such as the Leicester Anti-Vaccination League appeared in England after the 1840 Vaccine Act was passed. Their pamphlets suggested that the state wanted to control people’s bodies and unduly limit their freedoms.
More widely, a pre-Covid 2019 poll of 2000 US adults revealed that 45% had doubts about vaccine safety. The top three reasons were based on online articles (16%), past secrets/wrongdoing by the pharmaceutical industry (16%), and information from medical experts (12%).
In America since the outbreak of the pandemic, vaccines have been offered to Black people by the same government medical agency that organised the Tuskegee Study in the forty years until 1972. In the infamous study, hundreds of black Americans were used as a control group of untreated sufferers of syphilis when treatment was in fact available. These research subjects were not informed properly about the purpose of the experiment and were thus involved without their consent. This scandal is the foundation of much minority distrust of Covid vaccines in the US.
Social media and modern vaccine hesitancy
How has social media contributed to the spread of misinformation surrounding Covid-19 and associated mass vaccination programmes?
It is widely known that people are drawn into radical narratives online. As Nathalie Van Raemdonck shows, this is a particular problem with the way Facebook has designed the rules for groups. Facebook groups operate as closed echo chambers, reinforcing the views of group members. Moderators of these groups operate according to rules that oblige them to remove dissenting comments. Thus varying and perhaps contradictory opinions cannot filter through to members of these groups, resulting in the reinforcement of their views.
According to Weinberg and Dawson, in a world of loosely connected interest groups so familiar to users of social media, extreme views can catch on even with moderates. For example, otherwise apolitical parents were exposed online to a host of conspiracy theories about Covid-19 and vaccinations during school shutdowns. These parents, angry at the closure of schools, appeared to have been receptive to a conspiracist framing of school lockdowns while being unreceptive to conspiracists and conspiracies in general. People with disparate interests and commitments are then drawn together, thus creating new narratives.
These narratives radically revise phrases like ‘ordinary Americans’, for instance, harking back to an idealised and mythical past. This is then linked to common but vague commitments to freedom and patriotism with very specific issues like resistance to vaccinations. Lockdowns of schools and businesses during the Covid pandemic were viewed by many as incipient tyranny. Such a view was attractive to some parents seeking to frame their own frustration with the closure of schools.
European vaccine hesitancy and political populism
Much current anti-vaxxer sentiment originates in the US. What about Europe?
According to one survey, the French were most vaccine hesitant in Europe with only 44% of those surveyed saying they would be willing to use a vaccine certified as safe by a scientific paper. Willingness increasing only to 61% in the most vaccine confident country, Ukraine. This survey did not report that vaccine hesitancy was affected by conspiracy theories, but many people responded positively to the question of whether they would use a vaccine certified by scientists as safe. This shows that respondents did not fit the profile of the typically vaccine-averse groups on the left or right in America, as discussed above.
There is an association in Europe between vaccine hesitancy and political populism. Recio-Román, et al. show that in the whole array of EU member states, vaccine hesitancy or opposition can be interpreted as a sign of a general populist opposition to elites. Popular opposition to public health advice is partly a matter of doubting the competence of the relevant experts or sensing in their guidance an agenda of control of ‘the people’. There is also a strong correlation between the belief that ‘vaccines are not important for children to have’ and electoral support for populist political parties. Distrust was high in countries with a Soviet past; it was lowest in the Netherlands and Scandinavia.
Anti-vax views and conspiracy theories around the Covid-19 vaccination programme are predominantly narratives of the political and religious right. But anti-vax views now extend across the political spectrum. Opposition to vaccines and hesitancy to use them track a breakdown in trust between many citizens and traditional political authorities and previously acknowledged experts. Conspiracy theories about vaccines and scepticism about medical and scientific authority can amplify distrust and disaffection with political authority. This is a trend with worrying public health and political implications.