Online Australian anti-vaxx groups grow by nearly 300%: Report

Anastasia Tsirtsakis

18/05/2021 3:23:57 PM

To help tackle misinformation, the Australian Academy of Science has launched a guide about the science of immunisation.

A man using a smartphone.
Global research has shown willingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has risen over time, except in Australia.

Since the COVID-19 vaccine rollout commenced, GPs across the country have noted a rise in vaccine hesitancy
Melbourne GP and medical educator, Dr Preeya Alexander is among them.
‘Initially there was a great deal of excitement, but now with all the changes in recommendations and slowness of the rollout generally, I have noted a lot of my patients, including those in the over 50 age group, who were good to go with the AstraZeneca vaccine are [now] reluctant,’ she told newsGP.
‘I’m spending lots of time, along with my colleagues, answering questions and counselling patients.’
Dr Alexander’s experience is backed by a new global report. It found that out of 29 countries, willingness to get vaccinated against COVID-19 has risen over time, with Australia the only exception.
A new report by Reset Australia has found that the rise in vaccine hesitancy has coincided with a 280% increase in anti-vaxx group membership on Facebook.
An analysis of 13 Australia-based public groups on the social media platform, conducted from January 2020 to March 2021, found a combined total of more than 115,000 members responsible for generating more than 2.66 million interactions.
Common themes include the safety and efficacy of vaccines, the promotion of drugs ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine, as well as mandatory vaccination programs.
Executive Director of Reset Australia, Chris Copper said the findings are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’, having captured only a small snapshot of the true extent of misinformation being spread online.
‘The real danger of rampant vaccine hesitancy and scientific scepticism is tucked away in algorithm-created bubbles of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, where ideas fester and spread, unseen and unchecked by mainstream conversation,’ he said.
‘Previously, believing the earth is flat or Bill Gates wanted to microchip the entire world would have been socially isolating … But now social media can instantly find you thousands of like-minded people who are eager to reinforce and exacerbate your misguided views.’
To help tackle misinformation and uncertainty surrounding vaccines for COVID-19 and other diseases, the Australian Academy of Science has launched a new Science of Immunisation booklet.
Developed with the support of the Department of Health, it features easy to understand answers to common questions, such as:

  • what is immunisation?
  • what is in a vaccine?
  • who benefits from vaccines?
  • are vaccines safe?
  • what does the future hold for vaccination?
The guide also helps to highlight that the vaccines currently in use in Australian provide benefits that greatly outweigh the risks of associated adverse side effects, and that health authorities have a close eye on their safety and effectiveness.
Dr Alexander is a member of the expert working group that contributed to the guide.
‘We need to be very clear with the community that it is okay – more than okay actually … to want to know more, to want to ask questions about vaccines and vaccination,’ she said.
‘Patients need to feel safe asking us questions about vaccination and we need to be ready to hear their concerns without judgement.
‘Those of us working in health know that these vaccines are the way out of the pandemic and a big step to us achieving normalcy and opening borders again, but it’s an anxiety-provoking time for many who want to know more [and] who have lots of questions they want to ask.’
The guide, which is freely available online, features short, easy-to-understand videos to watch and share, and is available as web content, as a downloadable PDF, and in print. GPs can also order paper copies to have in their rooms for patients to access easily.
Dr Alexander says she has already started referring many of her patients to the guide, and says it is ‘a wonderful resource’ that can assist GPs in their ‘critical’ role in addressing any hesitancy.
‘A patient comes to us when they feel confused, reluctant or uncertain about health issues, and vaccination is no different,’ she said.
‘I think we need to be very aware of what types of things we are up against when it comes to misinformation in this area, particularly on social media – we need to know what our patients are being exposed to, what they are hearing – so that we can properly and gently counsel them and give them reliable, evidence-based, easy to digest information without judgement.’
To help Australian public health authorities identify anti-vaccination narratives to inform community engagement responses, Reset Australia has developed a policy that would force social media companies to generate a ‘live list’ of the most popular COVID-19-related URLs shared on their platforms.
‘Those who want to tackle misinformation head-on have no idea where to look,’ Mr Cooper said.
‘A live list would begin to quantify the extent of misinformation and help us target appropriate misinformation to disrupt the conspiratorial feedback loop.’
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