Vaccine Misinformation: Is Doubt Key to Certainty?

Two hundred years ago, the early attempts of smallpox inoculation were met with widespread propaganda that vilified the vaccine and its modern pioneer, the “Father of Immunology,” Dr. Edward Jenner. The ancient practice of “variolation” can be traced back to China and India as far back as 1000 C.E. 

As vaccination was becoming more common in the early 1800s, critics, and clerics in particular, rejected the idea of injecting humans with cowpox and led bitter campaigns against it. Side-effects such as sprouting hoofs and horns, half-cow babies, and ox-faces were some of the rumors circulating at the time. 

A 20-year global vaccination campaign eradicated the “speckled monster” in 1980. Humanity’s first vaccine was indeed successful, and our world was finally rid of the deadly pandemic.

Today, we are witnessing similar campaigns among Covid anti-vaxxers around the world. The spread of false and misleading content about the pandemic has been dubbed infodemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). 

Vaccination and freedom of choice in Lebanon

Despite the WHO’s campaigns to fight off myths around the vaccine, the internet remains rampant with counter-campaigns that disseminate skepticism around its efficacy and safety. In Lebanon, one group of anti-vaxers even took their online opposition to the streets.

The “General Federation for Lebanese Trade Unions,” who has a relatively large online following, organized a protest “against mandatory vaccination.” Headed by unionist Maroun Al-Khawli, this federation presents itself as “an independent and apolitical group of unions opposing the policy of the official General Labor Union in Lebanon” and dissociates itself from it. 

Last January, the group organized a protest in downtown Beirut, raising signs and slogans that read “no to genetic manipulation” and “what God has created, let no man change.”

Despite such statements, Al-Khawli does not consider the protest “against the vaccine, but rather in support of the freedom of choice against mandatory vaccination.” It is worth mentioning that Lebanon did not legally obligate individuals to be inoculated, but offered them the choice between vaccination and periodic testing.

Al-Khawli told SMEX that he refuses to let this protest be classified as spreading misinformation about the vaccine. In fact, he considers that its aim was not to disseminate nor support any false ideas, “rather, its goal was related to the personal freedom of workers in all public sectors of the Lebanese state.”

He accuses the government of being “negligent in publishing and disseminating health information and in explaining it to the people, thus losing the trust of its citizens.” “Our aim is not to dissuade people nor to plant fear of the vaccine in their hearts. We’re not contesting medicine, we’re simply trying to voice another perspective that the government did not take into consideration,” Al-Khawli argued. 

He believes that the government “is leaving people with no choice, either get vaccinated or undergo continuous tests, further burdening employees amid an economic crisis.”

In fact, this crisis has even affected the chatbot service launched by the Lebanese Ministry of Health in 2020 to respond to people’s messages via WhatsApp. This service has been terminated and now citizens have to wait for long periods of time before speaking to someone on the Ministry’s hotline.

Vaccine misinformation on social media 

While some consider such protests to be influenced by fake news and call for their organizers to be banned from social media, others see them as legitimate channels for freedom of expression.

According to information auditor and journalist Mahmoud Ghazayel, however, “there is only a fine line between freedom of expression and the fight against disinformation.” Ghazayel asserts that prohibiting, blocking or deleting content is not enough, and that all social media platforms should be “more transparent and publish further clarifications when opinions are subject to action, and when posts are deleted.” 

“They have to justify and clarify the reason for the deletion. It is not enough to specify that the post is wrong; in fact, they should correct the information and explain it. This way, their policy will not be arbitrary as some would describe it.”

WHO has been working alongside social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram to halt the spread of misinformation online. Facebook, for example, marks posts related to the pandemic and claims to delete any false information about the vaccine. 

WHO also provides these platforms with all the information needed to answer people’s questions. Recently, however, Meta has been under fire after insider leaks exposed that the company favors profit over the safety of its users and the fight against fake news.

Ghazayel explains that deletion without explanation does not stop the spread of fake news, “because according to the algorithms, correct information is boring compared to misinformation, which is classified as attractive and interactive.”

Ghazayel took it upon himself to identify any suspicious news online and correct it by reaching out to the user who shared it or by contacting its original source. In serious cases, Ghazayel even alerts the Facebook administration, which would work on deleting the post or suspending the account.

Ghazayel believes “the efforts in Lebanon to combat misinformation regarding the coronavirus vaccine remain insufficient; one person or one platform cannot reach all the people.” 

“Many people who are misinformed about the vaccine are attracted to politicians and entertainment and media personalities. These pages are followed by millions of users, and this is exactly what auditors focus on in their fight against the wave of misinformation.” As for publications that investigate the veracity of information, Ghazayel suggests that “they should be more interactive, by publishing funny material or shocking videos that attract a wider audience.”

Concerted efforts

Due to their wider demographic outreach, traditional media outlets play a huge role in addressing and debunking circulating myths around the vaccine. In Lebanon, many media initiatives have emerged to look into the veracity of news and information.

Zainab Zaiter, Lebanon 24 web journalist and host of the morning show on Radio Liban, is including a 15-min segment in her live broadcast titled “Sah wa Ghalat” (right and wrong) where listeners can call in and send her messages about Covid-19. 

Zaiter says she plays the role of mediator between the public and specialized experts, thus filling the gaps in scientific knowledge in public discourse. A specialized team of researchers, led by Dr. Jihad Makhoul, the Head of the Department of Health Promotion and Community Health at the Faculty of Health Sciences at AUB, provides the scientific information discussed on the show. 

Similar initiatives on local TV channels include the segment “Mech Dakeek” (Inaccurate) on Al-Jadeed’s news bulletin,  “Boursat Al-Akhbar Al-Kathiba” (Fake News Market) segment on radio Voice of Lebanon, and the program “Lil Tawdeeh” (To Clarify) on the Lebanese Broadcasting Channel (LBC); as well as the project “Sah” (Right) launched by MAHARAT Foundation. Agence France Presse (AFP) is also active with its initiative “Fee Mizan France Press” (In the balance of France Press).

Civil institutions have also launched programs to combat and verify false news, such as UNICEF’s initiative to disseminate scientific information about the pandemic via SMS and the “Tech 4 Peace” and the INSM Network initiatives in Iraq. The platforms “Fatabyyano” (Make Sure) in Jordan and “Ta’akkad” (Make Sure) in Syria do the same.

SMEX has recently launched the #VaxFacts campaign to verify online information about the Covid vaccine in the Arabic-speaking region. You can report suspicious content to our team on social media or by contacting the Digital Safety Helpdesk:  

Email: (helpdesk@smex.org) 

Whatsapp/Signal: + 961 81 633 133

This page is available in a different language العربية (Arabic) هذه الصفحة متوفرة بلغة مختلفة

Maha Beydoun

Freelance journalist and editor with a focus on sociology and technology.