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Trying to speak to an anti-vaxxer or someone who believes in conspiracy theories? Follow these six tips.

Friends don't let friends stay at risk.

How do you engage with an anti-vaxxer with so much COVID disinformation?

Arguing with the facts against disinformation doesn't work. People hold onto their beliefs even harder. Mocking, shaming or getting angry doesn't work. Stay calm, relate and encourage critical thinking. And above all, know when to stop for the sake of your friendship. Use this conversation guide to engage with friends.

COVID disinformation themes

Disinformation actors abuse and exploit people's beliefs. Unfounded claims on social media alleging that vaccines can modify human DNA or that they are tainted with HIV, malaria or “5G particles” appeal to emotions rather than facts. Such claims tap into deeply held beliefs about the need to protect our bodies and their children from anything that is “unnatural”, “dirty” or “dangerous”.

Some conspiracy theories say vaccines are a pretext to “microchip” and control humanity aim, to exploit our feelings about liberty and individual autonomy. Others alleges that the coronavirus crisis was manufactured by the media or by “Big Pharma” to pursue business interests.

How conspircy theories work

Conspiracy theories tend to portray complex realities in broad and sweeping strokes, explaining “everything” and providing answers to all possible questions at once.“The difference between a scientific theory and a conspiracy theory is that a scientific theory has holes in it”. - sociologist John Gagnon. The “know-it-all” certainty offered by conspiracy theories can become a source of relief from everyday anxieties. People often turn to dubious sources to satisfy their need to know.

Anti-vaxxer conversation guide

Follow these six steps when talking to an anti-vaxxer

Talking to an Anti-vaxxer - stay calm

Approach others with respect and willingness to listen to their concerns about vaccination and their point of view. Regardless of educational background, people can have hesitations and fears which may stem from valid concerns about vaccine safety and efficiency.

Talking to an Anti-vaxxer - understand their concerns

"People tend to make up their minds about vaccines based not only on scientific facts or medical arguments but also on social, cultural, economic and political factors, on personal experiences and on moral convictions. The reasons for believing unfounded claims about vaccines go far beyond a simple lack of knowledge. - ECDC

Try to encourage critical self-reflection by asking questions about anxieties and fears related to vaccines. And be prepared to listen without judgement.

 Talking to an Anti-vaxxer - relate to them

People who hesitate about vaccines probably do not want to intentionally harm themselves or their loved ones. Establish common ground over the shared need to make the best decision regarding one’s health. Avoid having a “series of rebuttals” which can lead to antagonism and anger. Try to relate on an emotional and personal level. 

Why is it important to you that they do “the right thing” when it comes to vaccines? Admitting that you are worried about their well-being could be a powerful stimulus for them to reconsider their views. Personal stories telling why you are confident about vaccines. Read more about safeguards on vaccine safety.

Talking to an Anti-vaxxer - use reliable sources

The Atlantic Council highlighted research which found that anti-vaccination clusters online employ more diverse narratives than pro-vaccination clusters. They engage in broader topics related to (alternative) health and general well-being than vaccine-advocacy which focuses on scientific data.

For example, a Facebook page devoted to “alternative(opens in a new tab)” medicine and targeting Ukrainians makes a series of claims linking coronavirus vaccines with “dangerous” nanoparticles and 5G technologies. The same page also advocates the wonders of Ayurveda medicine and the benefits of coffee for cancer patients.

Encourage friends in “alternative” bubble to follow pages and people sharing interesting and reliable, fact-based content. Connecting with scientists, academics, independent media, fact-checkers and similar communities is a good way to build immunity to disinformation online, including about vaccines.

Talking to an Anti-vaxxer - urge critical thinking

People who embrace conspiracy theories often consider themselves critical thinkers. This spirit of doubt is a key opening for rational thought. The aim is not to make the other person less curious but to change what they are curious about, and start asking questions. - BBC

Try asking your friend whose voices on health and vaccines he or she chooses to trust and why. Encourage them to reflect on how they seek and assess information, including thinking about the motives of those who share anti-vaccination messages.

Talking to an Anti-vaxxer - know when to stop.

Don't expect quick results. People's views and feelings about health and well-being are deeply personal and complex, and unlikely to change overnight. So if you press too much, there is a risk that the other person will come up with justifications and actually strengthen his or her views, despite the evidence against it.

Report COVID disinfo

Social media platforms claim they won't spread COVID disinformation. See something, say something.
Twitter COVID disinfo policy: COVID-19 misleading information policy. You may not use Twitter’s services to share false or misleading information about COVID-19 which may lead to harm. Report disinfo issues to Twitter here.
Facebook COVID disinfo policy: Combatting Vaccine Misinformation. We are working to tackle vaccine misinformation on Facebook by reducing its distribution and providing people with authoritative information on the topic. Report issues to Facebook here.

Takeaway: Don't let anti-vaxxer friends stay at risk. Read the guide.


Image credit: Taras Chernus on Unsplash and EU-vs-Disinfo

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