Don’t stereotype anti-vaxxers. They might not be who you think.

5 Dec

This week has been a jubilant one for the UK, with news that the Pfizer/ BioNTech vaccine has been approved. Ministers are no doubt delighted that their decision to buy 350 million doses of different vaccines finally seems to be paying off.

But one group that is causing them less cheer is “anti-vaxxers”. There are concerns that they could derail Jonathan Van-Tam’s train to normality, with the Labour Party calling for ministers to clamp down on anti-vaccination fake news.

Reading the newspapers you could be forgiven for thinking we were in for an epic battle between the Government and an army of conspiracy theorists, no doubt fuelled by all the coverage of anti-lockdown protests in central London. But the reality is more complicated than that…

The first thing to say is that, judging by polling figures, there aren’t actually that many people who would point blank refuse a vaccine. According to one YouGov poll, for instance, only 21 per cent of people said that they were “unlikely” to take the Covid vaccine (11 per cent “very unlikely” and 10 per cent “fairly unlikely”.)

Furthermore, the 21 per cent were mostly people who wanted more information. 10 per cent wanted to see if the vaccine is safe, and three per cent felt that they were low risk for the virus, and didn’t need a vaccine. Only two per cent were opposed to vaccines generally.

To put this in context, 67 of the public are “likely” to take the vaccine, with 12 per cent saying they don’t know.

One of the biggest predictors of how “likely” people are to take the vaccine is “perceived vulnerability”, which goes up with age. Over 65 year olds are the most “likely” group to want the vaccine, with 81 per cent of them putting this answer.

The percentage putting “likely” declines as age does, but the majority of 25-49 year olds and adults under the age of 25 (58 and 63 per cent respectively) still put “likely”.

In short, any ideas that “anti-vaxxers” will predominantly look like David Icke (68) or Piers Corbyn (73) are misconceived. It’s younger groups that need more information, but it’s not “anti-vax” sentiment the Government needs to tackle, but anxiety.

This has been a major finding from Opinium, the strategic insight agency. As Chris Curtis, its Senior Research Manager tells me, “There isn’t much sign that the Coronavirus conspiracy theories spreading on certain parts of the internet are getting much cut through, with few saying they believe them. However, there is a much wider group that have more general apprehensions surrounding the vaccine, particularly regarding the side effects.”

Opinium has conducted fascinating research into this area. It looked at 2,000 people, alongside their current voting intention, to find out their views on the vaccine.

One question was “If a vaccine was available and the government recommended that people like you took it, how likely to unlikely would you be to take the vaccine?”

Here are the responses:

Likely:

  • Conservative: 80 per cent
  • Plaid Cymru: 79 per cent
  • Liberal Democrat: 75 per cent
  • Labour: 73 per cent
  • Green: 64 per cent
  • SNP: 60 per cent
  • UKIP: 58 per cent
  • Some other party: 35 per cent

73 per cent of Remainers and 70 per cent of Leavers said “likely”.

In terms of people who replied “unlikely”, the top outcome was “some other party” at 55 per cent followed by the SNP at 32 per cent.

Opinium also asked how worried, if at all, respondents were that a vaccine won’t be safe.

Worried:

  • Plaid Cymru: 70 per cent
  • SNP: 62 per cent
  • Some other party: 62 per cent
  • UKIP: 55 per cent
  • Labour: 49 per cent
  • Liberal Democrat: 49 per cent
  • Conservative: 44 per cent
  • Green: 41 per cent

47 per cent of Remainers were worried compared to 50 per cent of Leavers.

In terms of people who replied “not worried”, the top outcome was Greens at 57 per cent, followed by Conservatives at 50 per cent.

When Opinium asked respondents how worried they were that a vaccine won’t be effective, they gave these answers:

Worried:

  • Plaid Cymru: 72 per cent
  • SNP: 72 per cent
  • Some other party: 52 per cent
  • Labour: 46 per cent
  • UKIP: 46 per cent
  • Liberal Democrat: 45 per cent
  • Conservative: 43 per cent
  • Green: 41 per cent

47 per cent of Remainers and 45 per cent of Leavers were worried.

Opinium also asked respondents how worried they were that a vaccine might have side effects:

Worried:

  • SNP: 73 per cent
  • Plaid Cymru: 70 per cent
  • UKIP: 66 per cent
  • Some other party: 65 per cent
  • Labour: 53 per cent
  • Liberal Democrat: 53 per cent
  • Green: 53 per cent
  • Conservative: 52 per cent

There are lots of things you could say about the data.

For starters, irregardless of voting invention, the majority of respondents were worried about side effects.

Second, SNP and Plaid Cymru consistently appear some of the most worried about the vaccine’s efficacy and side effects (although it’s worth pointing out that Plaid Cymru scores second highest for likelihood of taking it). What does this mean for the devolved administrations and a vaccine information campaign?

It’s also worth noting that “some other party” ranks high for having concerns about the vaccine. Who are these voters, if they do not fall under the other parties? And how does the Government reach out to them?

Interestingly, Green voters are often at the more “chilled” end of the spectrum. The other parties seem to group together quite a lot, and Leavers and Remainers often have small differences between how they vote (reminiscent of 2016’s referendum). 

Another interesting area to explore is the gender of some of the recipients, with Opinium finding 64 per cent of women compared to 51 per cent of men have concerns about side effects. Speaking about the overall findings of the research, Curtis says: “The government will need to work hard to alleviate fears [among women and young people] if they want to ensure there is a high uptake of the vaccine.”

So perhaps we need to move our language about “anti-vaxxers” to “vaccine apprehension”. It is not so much hardline attitudes, but anxiety that the Government needs to tackle. 

It’s interesting to note a YouGov poll this week showing that 66 per cent of the public want Matt Hancock to take the vaccine on TV, and some of this must surely reflect the need for more reassurance.

That’s why the media has to be careful about how they frame the issue, and not fall into the habit of labelling everyone with worries as an “anti-vaxxer”. Labour, too, could spend more time discussing the vaccine, as opposed to how to quash misinformation, which people could see as undermining the ability to ask questions. By all indications, the majority of the public are open to vaccines – it’s boosting confidence that’s the next step.

Facebook, Liz Truss and future challenges with the internet giants

3 Jul

In recent weeks, Facebook has been up against huge pressure to control hate speech and groups on its site. Much of this increased after President Donald Trump posted “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”, in response to protests in Minneapolis, on both Twitter and Facebook. The aftermath exemplified, among many things, that the two dominant social media sites had taken very different strategies to tackling inflammatory content.

Twitter went for the cautious approach. It added a warning label for the post to say that it had glorified violence, and hid the content unless it was clicked on. Facebook, on the other hand, kept Trump’s post up, on the basis that it was not an incitement of violence, but an announcement of state use of force.

Facebook’s “hands-off” approach to Trump only changed when a number of powerful companies pulled out of advertising with the site, such as Coca-Cola, Verizon and Ford, in a campaign co-ordinated by Stop Hate for Profit. Some have called these organisations opportunistic – Covid-19 has eaten into advertising budgets, and surely any company will jump on the chance to look socially righteous – but it’s still an expensive wobble that Facebook no doubt wants to avoid.

As a result, the social media has said that it will add a label to tell people that content may violate its policies; it’s a watered down version of what Twitter is offering. Even so, Zuckerberg has been fairly resilient in dealing with Stop Hate for Profit, which has set out a list of content it wants gone from Facebook and other sites. Zuckerberg said that he would not change Facebook’s policies; that he thinks advertisers will be back “soon enough”, and that he remains committed to democracy and free speech.

In spite of this, one strange area Facebook has increasingly delved into is political affairs, especially in anticipation of the upcoming US election. Some of this is to right the wrongs of 2016, in which there was foreign interference, with Russia attempting to “undermine the voting power of left-leaning African-American citizens, by spreading misinformation about the electoral process”, among other activitiesFacebook has since spent “billions of dollars in technology” and hired “tens of thousands of people” to fix this. (Incidentally, the UK is still waiting for its report on the alleged Russian interference in politics to understand the extent of it here.)

But more strikingly, Facebook has ventured into interventionist territory, with the new aim to “help 4 million people register to vote”. In doing this, Zuckerberg is taking the organisation much further away from its initial design. Many users, like myself (aged 17 when it first came out), will think of it predominantly as a tool for making friends online and posting photographs; a type of social peacocking, in many ways.

Zuckerberg, however, clearly has more profound visions. He says he wants to boost “authoritative information” for voting that he expects “160 million people in the US to see”. The goal sounds altruistic on the face of it, but it also poses big questions, like, who gets to categories “authoritative”? And should social media giants be involved in democracy at all?

Increasingly there’s been accusations from conservatives that in delving into the political realm, social media sites tend to show biases in favour of liberals, most notably Trump, who said “Twitter is completely stifling FREE SPEECH” after it fact-checked one of his Tweets. 

One writer suggests that out of “22 prominent, politically active individuals who are known to have been suspended since 2005 and who expressed a preference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, 21 supported Donald Trump”. In UnHerd, the author and commentator Douglas Murray goes further, revealing his own suspicions that Twitter is penalising right-leaning writers, such as hiding “likes” (a way of showing support for posts) from their posts.

Some say that there is no evidence of social media biases, with Kevin Roose, a tech journalist, noting yesterday that the best performing accounts on Facebook are all conservative. A tech expert tells me that the “exact opposite viewpoint (of social media bias) is shared in various countries, where the view is that the anti-capitalist left is censored by American tech giants”.

None of this has reassured Trump, however, who is proposing a bill to make social media giants take legal liability for material that their users post. But this could crush free speech, to a certain extent, making companies more likely to remove content to protect against litigation.

Even if there is not algorithmic censorship, many people were concerned last week after Google UK launched into Liz Truss, the Conservative MP, on social media. On June 18 it posted a petition trying to lobby her on the Gender Recognition Act.

This event should have rung serious alarm bells; a tech giant coming for a Conservative politician is seriously bad news, although – tellingly – there was a dearth of news stories about it. One suspects if Google UK had attacked a Remainer politician on refusing to leave the EU, it would have received the proportion response. This was, after all, perhaps the world’s biggest holder of personal information interfering in UK democracy.

One concern that has been pointed out repeatedly about Silicon Valley, and its companies, is that the demographic make-up of its tech talent could influence the ways in which content is censored. Even Zuckerberg has called it “an extremely left-leaning place”, and many will wonder how this affects their role in deciding the terms of “offence” on social media sites, and otherwise. 

In the UK, perhaps the most significant issue is that we are just so removed from these authors of our (online) reality, even if they have domestic offices. We know little about the algorithms they use – and it suits tech companies this way, limiting others’ abilities to get into the sector.

Here brings us to the biggest question: how should UK politicians deal with Facebook and other tech giants? Much of the focus on these companies has been on their involvement in elections, but they also have an impact on Joe Bloggs’ income, too, as one report by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) elucidates on.

It points out that Google has “more than a 90 per cent share of £7.3 billion search advertising market in UK, while Facebook has over 50% of the £5.5 billion display advertising market”. The report suggests that by dominating the market, these organisations control the default prices for advertising, which are arguably higher than they need to be – and in turn effect the consumer, as advertisers keep their product costs high.

CMA sets out numerous ways in which the Government can start to break up these giants and encourage competition. It is quite alarming in the ways in which it highlights tech giants’ control over many things – from prices, to regulation. And all of this has to change.

Ultimately, along with the current 5G issues the Government is dwelling on, they are going to increasingly need the knowledge, and foresight, to intercept some of these tech powers before they become so dominant as to make their powers irreversible.

Already the Government has found that Apple stifled the approach it wanted to take to contact tracing, and this is just a taste of what’s to come – as the tech giants, sometimes working in conjunction, block out competition. There is a mammoth amount of information to take on board, changing all the time. Along with Brexit and Coronavirus, Tories will have their work cut out.