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Fact checkers prepare for influx of Covid-19 vaccine conspiracy theories ‘soon’

Jamie Harris, PA Science Technology Reporter
·3-min read

One of the UK’s leading fact checking organisations is preparing for anti-vaccination posts online to be “ramped up” following news of a major vaccine breakthrough.

Interim results from a jab developed by Pfizer and its partner BioNTech were found to be more than 90% effective, the pharmaceutical firm announced on Monday.

Social networks and online platforms have seen a surge in misinformation since the pandemic began, with anti-vax conspiracy theories among the biggest threat.

Anti-vax protest
An anti-vax protest in Trafalgar Square, London. Anti-vax conspiracy theories have surged during the pandemic (Yui Mok/PA)

Full Fact, the UK’s independent fact checking charity, is preparing itself for further attempts by anti-vaxxers looking to sow public doubt.

Tom Phillips, editor of Full Fact, said: “I don’t think we’ve seen anything about it just yet but I would imagine that it will not be too long before we start seeing things.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we start to see false claims about it relatively soon.”

Vaccine misinformation has made up a “sizeable amount” of the content reviewed by the organisation, Mr Phillips said.

He added that, due to the magnitude of the pandemic, pre-existing conspiracy theories have now been attached to Covid-19.

“I suspect that we will see many of the same claims being ramped up – the claims that this was part of a plot to force a vaccination on the population,” he told the PA news agency.

“You see misinformation about a mandatory vaccination when I don’t believe any such decision has been taken, certainly not in the UK,”

“That information can ruin lives and, in a public health crisis, that’s clearer than ever before.

“If a vaccine is approved for use, if it is found to be safe, if it is found to be effective, then it has the potential to save lives. If misinformation discourages people from getting a safe and effective vaccine then that has the potential to cause real harm. It has the potential to cost lives.”

Mr Phillips said it is up to the Government and companies involved to be transparent and thereby build public trust.

“This is a rapid vaccine development process. It is important that good quality data is made available which can be scrutinised by independent experts. (That way) people can have that trust that this has gone through proper efficacy and safety tests,” he told PA.

“I think it’s going to be on the companies, the academics (and) governments involved to earn the trust of people by being open with information about it.

“As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, you need good quality information. If you don’t have that, then bad information will just flow in and fill that space.

“It’s important to combat the bad information by fact checking it, by countering false claims that are being made. But it’s also important to provide good quality information because otherwise the bad information will just keep flowing back in.”

He added: “I expect you’ll start to see claims that decision makers have corrupt reasons for backing a particular company. I expect that you will see claims almost on the opposite side to the mandatory vaccination idea. You will start to see claims about who is going to be prioritised for the vaccine, who may get it ahead of other people.”

The charity advises people to think about how something they read online makes them feel before sharing it.

“Take a moment to think about how it’s making you feel, to think about whether or not it’s providing good sources or good evidence to the claims that it’s making,” Mr Phillips said.

“Just take that moment before you share it to check to see if anybody else has written about it; check to see if a fact checker like ourselves or our colleagues have written about it.

“Just particularly be aware if something triggers strong emotions in you, if it makes you feel frightened.”