Australian anti-vaxx Facebook groups swell nearly 300% during pandemic

Decorative image

The number of Australians following public anti-vaxx Facebook groups grew nearly 300% during the pandemic, Reset Australia has found, in direct correlation with Australia’s rising vaccine hesitancy rates.

Reset Australia’s report identified 13 public Facebook groups with users based in Australia and tracked their growth between January 2020 to March 2021. The 13 included anti-lockdown style groups, such as ‘End the Lockdown in Australia, ’ Digital Warfare’, and ‘Australia Freedom Alliance’, and larger, established anti-vaxx groups, such as ‘Australians for Safe Technology’.

During the research period, subscription to these groups grew by 280%, and as of March 2021, these groups had a combined total of over 115,000 members, generating over 2.66 million interactions.

Reset Australia noted that surge in online followers coincided with Australia’s growing vaccine hesitancy. A University of Melbourne survey found between October 2020 and February this year, the percentage of Australians willing to get the COVID-19 jab fell by 8.2% from 74% to 66%.

“Reset Australia’s research shows a direct correlation between surging anti-vaxx misinformation on Facebook and Australia’s growing vaccine hesitancy,“said Chris Cooper, executive director of the Australian affiliate of a global body fighting against digital harms to democracy and society.

“Social media has supercharged conspiracy theories and misinformation, pushing some people into echo chambers where false information is all they see.”

The research found engagement with the Facebook groups exploded during the initial national lockdown. Melbourne’s lockdown restriction generate over 177,000 monthly interactions, and this engagement has remained consistently high.

Members of the group ‘Wake Up Australia’ frequently shared links, photos, videos and statuses with false and misleading information about the pandemic and vaccines.

Reset Australia found common themes included: the safety and efficacy of vaccines including the promotion of treatments using Ivermectin (201 mentions) and Hydroxychloroquine (601 mentions); threats to civil liberties and personal freedoms that lockdowns pose; mandatory vaccination programmes (1649 mentions); the political and economic motives of leading political figures such as Bill Gates (1390 mentions) and Dan Andrews (1592 mentions); and well-established and novel conspiracy theories such as the The Great Reset (927 mentions).

Mr Cooper said public groups like those Reset Australia monitored were often gateways to private groups which shared more radical and extreme content. This research only captured a small snapshot of the true extent of misinformation on Facebook.

“Public Facebook groups are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to track and tracing anti-vaxx and COVID-19 misinformation.

“The real danger of rampant vaccine hesitancy and scientific scepticism is tucked away in algorithm-created bubbles of Facebook, YouTube and Twitter, where ideas fester and spread, unseen and unchecked by mainstream conversation.

“Previously believing the earth is flat or Bill Gates wanted to microchip the entire world would have been socially isolating. You couldn’t casually raise it at after-work drinks and handing out conspiratorial pamphlets wouldn’t win you many friends.

“But now social media can instantly find you thousands of like-minded people who are eager to reinforce and exacerbate your misguided views.”

Reset Australia has developed a policy, the Data Access Mandate for a Better COVID-19 Response in Australia, that would allow public health officials, researchers and journalists access to anonymised data about what COVID-19 related content is being shared in these kinds of private groups.

This policy would force social media companies to generate a ‘Live List’ of the most popular COVID-19 related URLs shared on their platforms, including in private and public groups, and keep it updated in real time. Such a Live List would help Australian public health authorities identify anti-vaccination narratives to inform community engagement responses.

“Those who want to tackle misinformation head on have no idea where to look. They are left to blindly fight false information because it’s tucked away out of sight in algorithm-created corners of the platforms.

“A Live List would begin to quantify the extent of misinformation and help us target appropriate misinformation to disrupt the conspiratorial feedback loop.”

The report can be found here.