Dr Siouxsie Wiles (Photo: Arvid Eriksson)
Dr Siouxsie Wiles (Photo: Arvid Eriksson)

OPINIONSocietyMay 15, 2021

Siouxsie Wiles: There’s a lot of vaccine BS around. Here’s why I won’t be debunking it

Dr Siouxsie Wiles (Photo: Arvid Eriksson)
Dr Siouxsie Wiles (Photo: Arvid Eriksson)

Siouxsie Wiles wants to talk about all the ‘fake news’ about vaccines that’s floating around and popping into people’s letterboxes. But don’t expect her to debunk it. She explains her thinking. 

Right now, a number of groups and individuals are waging what looks like a coordinated campaign here in New Zealand. Their aim is to disrupt our Covid-19 vaccine rollout. What makes it all the more shocking is that these groups are being helped by people who look, and in some cases even are, legitimate medical and health professionals. 

As well as spreading what I can only describe as “fake news” and “alternative facts” on social media, over the last few weeks they have started dropping leaflets and booklets into people’s letterboxes around the country. You might have already seen some of it. Produced by groups including Advance NZ and Voices for Freedom, they contain distressing lists of so-called facts that are designed to frighten people into not taking the vaccine.

Another group, Nga Kaitiaki Tuku Iho Inc, is taking the New Zealand government to court to try to stop the vaccine roll-out, which is ironic given they claim to be all about people having the freedom to choose to be vaccinated or not. It’ll be a bit hard to choose to be vaccinated if they’ve removed our access to the vaccine. Simon Thornley of the Plan B group, about whom I’ve written before, has given evidence in support of the group trying to halt the roll-out.

The disinformation agenda

While there is a heap of really excellent public health information that’s trying to keep us informed about the pandemic and the global roll out of the many vaccines, it is heart-breaking to see these “fake news” and “alternative facts” being created and shared. The official term for this kind of information is disinformation. Disinformation can include demonstrably false information as well as legitimate information/facts that have been twisted and mangled to try to argue an opposing viewpoint. 

The important thing we all have to remember about disinformation is that it is designed to cause harm. That harm could be to a person, a group of people, an organisation, or even a country. Disinformation generally serves some agenda though it often isn’t clear whose or what. Sometimes the people spreading the disinformation might not even know what the actual agenda is. 

The US and UK-based Centre for Countering Digital Hate recently analysed a sample of anti-vaccine content that was posted or shared on social media between February 1 and March 16 this year. They found that while many people might be spreading anti-vaccine content on social media, the content they share comes from a limited range of sources. 

Of the content they analysed, which had been shared more than 812,000 times, a staggering 65% of it was attributable to just 12 accounts. They’ve called them the Disinformation Dozen. If you are looking for an agenda, many of the Disinformation Dozen are trying to sell you stuff. Books. DVDs. Online courses. Or even dietary supplements and false cures as alternatives to vaccines. Others are trying to erode our trust in each other and in our governments and public institutions. Despite the fact the Disinformation Dozen’s content repeatedly violates Facebook and Twitter’s community standards and terms of service agreements, the Disinformation Dozen remain largely free to spread their dangerous messages. 

Here in New Zealand, groups like Voices for Freedom are taking that disinformation created overseas and repackaging it to make it appeal to people in New Zealand and to promote their agenda, which on the surface seems to be to erode our trust in each other, our government, and our successful response to the pandemic. 

Why I refuse to debate or debunk disinformation

I’ve had lots of calls from journalists asking me to debunk the “alternative facts” so that they can get the right information out there, but my answer is always no. It’s not that I don’t want people to have the correct information, it’s that the evidence is really clear: repeated exposure to fake news and alternative facts is actually one way that bad information gets bedded down into people’s memories. 

Even worse, when trustworthy sources of information talk about the disinformation in an effort to debunk it and show how it is false, people can forget the debunking part and start to associate the disinformation with the trustworthy source. And that then has the opposite effect. People start to believe the disinformation precisely because they heard it from someone they normally trust to provide good information. Hence why you won’t hear me debunking things. The same is true for debating the people who are creating and sharing disinformation. Going head-to-head with them legitimises their position and gives a sense of false balance. Also, it is very hard to engage in debate with people who show no sign of entering that debate in good faith. Why would I debate someone who has been shown over and over again to cherry-pick or misrepresent evidence? 

Instead, I’ll be tackling disinformation not by drawing attention to it, but by talking about the actual facts. So over the coming days, weeks, and months, you’ll probably hear a lot more from me about the Covid-19 vaccine rollout. My goal will be to try to explain the incredible work that has gone into developing and testing the vaccines, as well as what information we’re getting about how safe and effective they are from the millions of people around the world who’ve already been vaccinated. I want you to be able to make up your minds about whether to get the vaccine when your time comes. And I want you to do that based on the facts and not on disinformation.

If you see information on social media about vaccines that alarms you, please don’t share it. If you receive one of the disinformation leaflets, please report it to CERTNZ and the Disinformation Project. If a friend or family member mentions disinformation, talk to them privately about it. And if you really really want the disinformation debunked, go here.  

Keep going!