Welcome to my nightmare: One GP’s adventures with anti-vaxxers and their ‘infodemic’

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As we endure the 10th week of lockdown, we are faced with the reality that this pandemic is far from under control. Along with delays in vaccine arrival, vaccine hesitancy, lack of adherence to lockdown and increasing numbers of people in intensive care, we face the possibility of another viral pandemic: the infodemic.

Misinformation and, more specifically, conspiracy theories have been the fuel to vaccine hesitancy and are what the World Health Organisation defines as a massive threat to our global health.

Spare me the conspiracy theories: GP and clinical researcher Mariam Chaalan.

Consider one conspiracy theory: that the consumption of highly concentrated alcohol could disinfect the body and kill the coronavirus. The highlighting of this theory alone on social media feeds has resulted in 800 deaths and about 6000 hospitalisations worldwide, a team of infectious disease researchers reports in the American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. They conclude “misinformation fuelled by rumours, stigma, and conspiracy theories can have potentially severe implications on public health if prioritised over scientific guidelines”.

My jobs, both as a doctor in one of Sydney’s areas of concern and as an investigator in clinical trials, extend beyond my 8am-6pm routine. I come home and I’m inundated with COVID vaccine messages from family, friends, friends of the family, family of the friends. The messages have a recurring theme – a forceful venture to disprove my beliefs and reaffirm their own. I could almost compare it with the Jehovah’s Witness lady, Mary, who would come week after week to my door. If I didn’t convert, she said, I’d succumb to the flames of hell for all eternity.

What did these people want from me? Did they expect or hope I would yield to the misinformation and tell them, “Yes, all this rubbish you’ve sent me is true and I want to be a part of this”?

I have a responsibility and, to be frank, an urge to squeeze the pus out of those dangerous messages. I spent a lot of time debunking the articles I received. It was exhausting, and never enough. I had spent a large portion of my career dealing with vaccine or treatment hesitancy, so I had some empathy in my approach. These are unprecedented times. You must be patient, I’d tell myself.

Then something changed. Despite the facts I would present, people would turn on me. They would respond aggressively with more and more absurd claims. I’d attempt to respond again with facts, but the responses would only become more combative.

The sad truth is that facts and rational arguments aren’t very good at altering these people’s beliefs. By these people, I mean the ones who’ve gone down the dark spiral of conspiracy theories.

They’d send more misinformation from unverified sources, and more abuse. With nothing but random social media feeds, people are making decisions affecting not only their health and survival but that of the people around them.

We need to realise we inherently tend to seek out information to reinforce our own views. This is known as confirmation bias. It doesn’t help that the algorithms on our social media engines recommend the content we are more likely to engage with.

Certain psychological patterns help explain why conspiracies tend to gain popularity in times of crisis. The looming threat of the virus, extension of lockdowns, the involvement of the police, social isolation, feelings of injustice with the loss of employment and social media fuelling stories all provide the perfect storm to soak the vulnerable mind.

People come together and share insecurities to find a community, and to make “sense” of it all. People inclined to believe conspiracy theories, research tells us, include those with lower levels of education and from low socio-economic backgrounds, but also those with narcissistic traits and underlying low self-esteem. Sometimes a lie is easier to understand. These theories can offer a sense of control in times of uncertainty.

I only ask that before you forward Aunty Shazza’s video of a Ukrainian man suggesting the vaccine will turn you into a goat, think of the potential consequences? The antidote to misinformation and being misled is critical thinking, which involves carefully dissecting that information. In this case it means considering evidence-based medicine. Do not be the reason these fake narratives spread. They have the potential to hurt the people you love.

In the words of the true GOAT (Greatest Of All Time), Arnie Schwarzenegger: “I think if the circle of people you trust gets smaller and smaller and you find yourself more and more isolated, it should be a warning sign that you’re going down a rabbit hole of misinformation.”

I, meanwhile, am off to board my mega yacht which, obviously, Pfizer paid for.

Mariam Chaalan is a clinical researcher and GP with a sense of humour and an Instagram page, @ask.the.dr

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