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What to do about leaders spouting vaccine misinformation

COMMENT

What is the best way to fight misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines (of which there has been plenty in South Africa) spread by leaders? Attacking them directly by correcting their myths or scepticism with scientific information, is simply not the answer, research shows. Rather, we should focus on the people they’re trying to reach and expose the techniques influential people use to distribute the wrong information.

In December, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng was asked to speak at a thanksgiving celebration at Tembisa hospital. Taking to the podium in front of a sign emblazoned with the Gauteng government seal, Mogoeng told the crowd gathered in prayer: “If there be any [Covid-19] vaccine that is the work of the devil meant to infuse 666 in the lives of the people, meant to corrupt their DNA … may it be destroyed by fire.” Many Christians associate the number “666” with the devil.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng.

In the address, some audience members responded with a chorus of “Yes!”

Let’s be clear: vaccines are not made by the devil and do not change your DNA. (Routine childhood immunisations save two- to three-million lives each year, the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, estimates.) 

The real danger is that statements such as Mogoeng’s decrease the public’s trust in vaccines — especially now, as South Africa is starting with its roll-out.

Mogoeng, the most senior member of the Constitutional Court, should be one of the country’s most responsible, accountable figures. But he’s one of several people in high-profile leadership positions who have peddled misinformation about Covid-19. For instance, eThekwini ANC ward councillor Sfiso Mngadi admitted to circulating dangerous conspiracy theories on a voice note, such as that Covid-19 is caused by 5G cellphone towers in KwaZulu-Natal.

The former ANC MP Tony Yengeni, Cosatu president Zingiswa Losi, and Gauteng provincial secretary Jacob Khawe have all publicly cast doubt on vaccines’ safety or effectiveness.

Why we filed a complaint against the chief justice

In response to Mogoeng’s dangerous vaccine misinformation, the health-advocacy organisation I head, the African Alliance, filed a complaint against the chief justice with the Judicial Services Commission. In our affidavit submitted as part of that complaint, we argue that in making unfounded claims about vaccines, Mogoeng acted in a manner unbecoming of a judicial office holder and violated the Code of Judicial Conduct in relation to the Judicial Services Commission Act. (The African Alliance is awaiting the Judicial conduct committee’s response.)

Those are the technical grounds for the complaint, but the real issue is that Mogoeng Mogoeng is not your ordinary person in the street saying vaccines are dangerous. He’s the chief justice. His comments carry weight and travel fast — and have made it to the “myths” section of the health department’s toolkit on Covid-19 and vaccines.

Comments such as Mogoeng’s can sway people who are unsure about whether they’d like to take a jab in the wrong direction — and this is a large group.

Target the audience more than the denier

Few people are wholly “anti-vaxxers” (vaccine deniers), a 2015 study in the journal Vaccine has found. Rather, they’re what an expert committee in the study call “vaccine hesitant”: Their views on vaccines are more fluid.

In Australia in 2017, researchers surveyed about 400 parents to see how their vaccine views might change if they were exposed to both vaccine facts and misinformation, in the form of a series of comments by politicians, including former United States president Donald Trump. About a quarter of parents had firm views about vaccines and, of these, most were pro-vaccinations.

Three out of four parents, however, did not have set views.

The research, published in 2019 in the British Medical Journal, found that parents who did not have strong views on vaccines were more likely to be swayed — in either direction — by these messages than those with firm opinions.

So how should we deal with comments such as Mogoeng’s?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) says we should focus mostly on vaccine deniers’ audiences, not on the “vocal vaccine denier”. If we focus on the vaccine denier only, research shows, it may result in polarising people’s views even further.

The WHO says deniers’ audiences want explanations for why a particular denier’s message is incorrect. The organisation proposes two “rules” to make the public more resistant to anti-vaccine rhetoric: First: “The general public is your target audience ”, not the denier. Second: “Aim to unmask the technique the vocal vaccine denier is using and correct the content of their messages.”

A 2019 study in Nature found that “technique rebuttal” (identifying common techniques used by those spreading misinformation), and “topic rebuttal” (rebuttals that combine vaccine facts with messages that attacked the plausibility of disinformation), decreased vaccine deniers’ influence.

Mogoeng’s claim that vaccines will “ corrupt… DNA” could be publicly countered with a “technique rebuttal” showing that this claim is an example of “misrepresentation or false logic” (one of the five denialist techniques defined by the WHO), illustrating that this is backed by scientific evidence, and explaining the facts. (This was not what Health Minister Zweli Mkhize did when he brushed away Mogoeng’s outrageous statements at a media briefing by saying, “I think it was an expression from the chief justice to assure people that if there was anything wrong, they would be protected.”

We must also continue to remind politicians and civil servants that there are consequences to spreading misinformation about vaccines. (Existing regulations under the Disaster Management Act make it an offence to spread fake news about Covid-19.) And we should refute misleading claims in the public — not to change minds, but to protect those who might be listening.

Most South Africans are pro-vaccine

In a 15-country online survey, which included South Africa, published last month, 61% of South Africans surveyed said they would take a vaccine against Covid-19 if it were available — this shows a six percentage point increase since December in those who “strongly agree”, to 31%; 25% “strongly disagreed” with getting vaccinated, and 15% “somewhat disagreed”. (The same survey recorded 64% in favour in August 2020 and 53% in December.)

A separate survey by the University of Johannesburg published in late January reported that 67% of South Africans are willing to take a Covid 19 vaccine. So, survey results in South Africa about Covid-19 vaccine confidence have sometimes found conflicting results, and changed over time, making information about vaccine hesitancy in the country confusing.

Confusion around which vaccines may work against the new coronavirus variants, such as the 501Y.V2 variant first identified in South Africa, may change people’s views further.

‘Values’ take time to construct — and deconstruct

There are no easy fixes when it comes to changing people’s minds on vaccines — including the minds of those who hold power. Views on vaccines are constructed in complex ways — and that is just as true of a neighbour as it is of a major public figure.

Twenty years ago, during former president Thabo Mbeki’s HIV denialism, reputable scientists on his advisory board spoke truth to power, yet this had little effect on his HIV scepticism. “Educating” a denialist does not necessarily change their beliefs.

So although the filing of complaints such as the African Alliance’s complaint against Mogoeng with the Judicial Services Commission could potentially help holding the chief justice to account for his dangerous statements, research has shown us there’s more to do.

We should also make a point of getting the right information to the audience he reaches — from the Christian community to health workers to legal professionals.

What leaders and public officials say matters.

When what they say puts lives at risk and spreads dangerous untruths about vaccines, civil society will hold them to account, as we always have. We expect the government and political parties to do the same.

This story was produced by the Bhekisisa Centre for Health Journalism. Sign up for the newsletter.

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