Covid-19: What’s the harm of ‘funny’ anti-vaccine memes?

By Jack Goodman and Flora Carmichael
BBC Reality Check

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Image source, Getty Images

Memes, often in the form of humorous images and videos, are a major part of how people communicate on the internet, but they can also be used to spread disinformation.

We've been looking at how these memes can present false and misleading information about Covid-19 vaccines, feeding into concerns about their efficacy or safety.

Misusing a music video to spread falsehoods

A popular meme - including images from rapper Drake's Hotline Bling music video - popped up in a number of local and community online forums in the UK and US this week - spreading false claims that a vaccine will modify our genetic code (DNA).

It also says the recovery rate from the disease is 99.97% - suggesting getting the disease is a safer option than a vaccine.

We've seen similar arguments against a Covid-19 vaccine shared across social media - asking why we need one at all if the chances of dying from the virus are so slim.

To begin with, the figure referred to in the meme as the "recovery rate" - implying these are people who caught the virus - is not correct.

About 99.0% of people who catch Covid survive it, says Jason Oke, Senior Statistician at the University of Oxford.

So around 100 in 10,000 will die - far higher than three in 10,000, as suggested in the meme.

However, Mr Oke adds that "in all cases the risks very much depend on age and do not take into account short and long-term morbidity from Covid-19" .

Without a vaccine, there will be many more infections - and therefore deaths - before enough people are immune to stop the spread. This is known as herd immunity - when a certain portion of the population have caught the virus.

It's not just about survival. For every person who dies, there are others who live through it but undergo intensive medical care, and those who suffer long-lasting health effects.

This can contribute to a health service overburdened with Covid patients, competing with a hospital's limited resources to treat patients with other illnesses and injuries.

Concentrating on the overall death rate, or breaking down the taking of a vaccine to an individual act, misses the point of vaccinations, says Prof Liam Smeeth of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. It should be seen as an effort by society to protect others, he says.

"In the UK, the worst part of the pandemic, the reason for lockdown, is because the health service would be overwhelmed. Vulnerable groups like the old and sick in care homes have a much higher chance of getting severely ill if they catch the virus".

Satire or disinformation?

While mainly associated with humour, memes can also carry negative messages on emotive subjects.

Some of the most common memes about vaccines make it appear that a vaccine can have some radical side effects.

Images of disfigured people or creatures are shared alongside claims that they show the "first person to receive the vaccine" or captions saying that the jab "didn't even hurt".

It might seem obvious these images are not meant to be taken literally, but they are often shared in groups which are strongly opposed to vaccinations.

It's true that vaccines can have side effects, but these are mostly mild such as a sore arm, headache or a raised temperature for a day or two.

Vaccines go through rigorous safety checks before they can be administered to the public, with side effects closely monitored.

When memes have been appearing on social media feeds for months, some people start questioning if there's anything to these false or baseless claims.

"Memes like these can be disarming, because they tap into fears we all have about trust in science and medication side effects" says Joan Donovan, a lecturer at Harvard University, and an expert on disinformation.

"Tying together negative messaging to pop culture can be especially memorable and drive people to share because the meme is funny, outrageous, or sticky (memorable)."

Another widely shared group of memes links falsehoods about vaccines to freedom and individual liberties.

One we've seen uses images of someone applying clown make-up, suggesting requirements for wearing a mask will be followed by an "experimental vaccine" and then an "implantable microchip".

Other posts seek to downplay the risks of coronavirus and suggest there is an ulterior motive behind the development of a vaccine.

Vaccines must meet a high standard of safety and effectiveness before they are approved for use - it's misleading to call them experimental.

As for the microchip rumour, we've debunked that before.

Image caption,
Bill Gates is often the target of anti-vaccination campaigners' memes

Another example suggests vaccines will lead to demands for people to surrender their firearms, and the confinement of people in "virus relocation centres". There is no evidence whatsoever to support these claims.

A recent report looking at the online conversation about vaccines in English, French and Spanish, found that the theme of liberty and freedom was more common in English, and particularly in the US.

Seb Cubbon, one of the co-authors of the report from anti-misinformation non-profit organisation First Draft, told the BBC this could be down to a number of factors, including America's political history and the relationship that citizens perceive they have with the state.

"As always, we should genuinely respect and appreciate people's views and opinions, such as the one that vaccines undermine personal freedoms" he said.

"But the case can also be made that vaccines actually increase people's freedom to do things they otherwise wouldn't be able to, and can also contribute to safeguarding other people's personal freedoms too."

Additional reporting by Olga Robinson and Marianna Spring.