The number of Instagram accounts spreading anti-vaccine propaganda increased nearly fivefold last year, highlighting the dangers of unreliable information during the coronavirus pandemic, a BBC investigation has found.
The BBC’s investigative documentary series Panorama found the accounts reached more than four million followers, who may have been deterred from having a vaccination against the virus after being exposed to misinformation over its efficacy or safety.
False claims spread fear
Mary Ramsay, head of immunisation at Public Health England, told the BBC programme: “Naturally we didn’t have the time maybe to do the sort of preliminary work that we do when we’re introducing vaccines.
“I think it’s fair to say that we didn’t have time to do all those things as well as we would normally do but we’re very much playing catch up now.”
Rosemary Lowe, an 83-year old from Norwich, contacted Panorama about a video post called “Ask the Experts”, featuring false claims from 33 supposed health experts that the coronavirus vaccines are not safe, that they can alter a person’s DNA and that the pandemic is “not real”.
The video, which has been taken down from YouTube and Twitter, is still being widely shared via messaging app WhatsApp.
Professor Liam Smeeth, head of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine said the video exaggerated anxieties without providing a scientific basis for the claims.
He said: “The real danger is to people who perhaps have got the most to lose by not having this vaccine and face the most severe threats from mortality and death from Covid but also from long term illness from Covid.”.
Having been initially concerned by the video Ms Lowe has since had her jab, the BBC said.
The programme’s findings echo research from the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) published in December last year, which found anti-vaccination groups on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, which have gained close to 877,000 new followers – totalling 59.2 million – since June.
An estimated 5.4 million of these followers are based in the UK, although many live in the US.
YouTube and Instagram are particularly fertile ground for anti-vaccine content, with each platform gaining around 4.3 million followers since 2019, according to CCDH analysis.