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04 APRIL 2021
Vaccine conspiracy theories - rebuilding public trust

Countering conspiracy theories that lead to vaccine hesitancy, threatening to derail the South African government’s target of achieving herd immunity against Covid-19 by the end of 2021, will take more than publicity shots of politicians publicly receiving their vaccine shots.

Rebuilding public trust in public institutions and systems is what is needed, says senior futurist Dr Njeri Mwagiru of the Institute for Futures Research at the University of Stellenbosch Business School.

The rollout of Covid-19 vaccines, with government aiming to vaccinate 67% of the population, about 40-million people, by year end, is central to the strategy to keep infection rates low and prevent a third wave that would lead to further loss of lives and disrupt the economy again.

“While we are acting to curb the spread of the virus, curbing the spread of conspiracy theories, misinformation and fake news will be a key element in the success of that strategy.”

“The spread of misinformation is harmful to public health, individual wellbeing and overall societal peace and order, so addressing this is equally important to addressing concerns such as the acquisition of sufficient vaccine doses, the logistics of distributing and administering the vaccine and whether the pace of vaccination is sufficient to reach the target,” Dr Mwagiru said.

She cautioned that leaders in government, business and the community publicly having their vaccine shots in order to convince people of their safety, was only one step.

“Conspiracy theories and beliefs thrive when the social contract is weak, when the public lacks trust that leaders, institutions and establishments in authority will act outside of their own self and partisan group interests.

“These public shows of acceptance of the vaccine by leaders will be ineffective if still overshadowed by lack of trust, with the risk of well-intended publicity being hijacked by a conspiracy narrative that says such displays are part and parcel of a mass, ongoing duping process.

“Leadership needs to convince constituencies through sustained actions that they are acting as stewards in service of society and that their decisions and our institutions are geared towards the greater good, not only in the short-term for expediency’s sake but in the long-term too.”

She said that conspiracy theories – defined as “claims of secret, often malevolent, ploys by powerful agents” – attempt to offer explanations for the causes of significant social, political, economic and technological events and circumstances, especially in times of uncertainty and diminished trust in public institutions and even though they are “often unverifiable or proven false”.

“Contexts of increasing uncertainty, such as we are currently experiencing, also heighten a sense of overwhelm, which can drive a desire to find certainty and answers amidst the perceived chaos. Studies show that conspiracy beliefs are higher when there is a need to make sense of changing environments and a need to feel safe and in control.

“Misdirecting this search for sense and safety, conspiracy theories offer definitive answers in areas of ambiguity, and respond to a wish for stability with an instant gratification approach,” she said.

To counter the numerous conspiracy theories, covering topics ranging from climate change to vaccines, Dr Mwagiru said the onus is on governments, multinational corporations and big business, as well as science, the media and education institutions, to re-establish the trust of populations in their systems.

“Particularly there is a need to underscore the necessary legitimacy of these systems, their representational functions and the purported altruism of their service, prioritising valuing communities and promoting wellbeing across generations.”

She said areas where public institutions could improve public trust include ethical leadership, increased transparency and accountability, improved information sharing and participatory, evidence-based decision-making.

Dr Mwagiru said education institutions and the media also have a role to play in ensuring accurate information gains traction over misinformation, and to prevent data manipulation and distribution of falsified facts.

“These institutions have a responsibility to provide individuals with the tools for analytical and critical thinking, and to encourage cultures of questioning that are linked to ethical processes of solution-finding guided by evidence and efforts to attain the greater good for the long-term. It is also important that these institutions avoid becoming usurped by narrow interests to act as tools for exclusive, short-sighted agendas.”

Dr Mwagiru said in addition to conspiracy theories surrounding the Covid-19 vaccine in Africa in particular, there were “well-documented historical links between racism and science and previous unethical actions by ‘big pharma’” on the continent and these also provided reasons for distrust in experimental science, the ethics of research, testing processes and vaccines.

“Despite some prosecutions for crimes and human rights abuses by pharmaceutical and medical industries in Africa, confidence in the functional procedures to guard against malpractice and negative impacts is low, and is further justified by weak regulatory environments and governance in many instances.”

For this reason, she said, some characteristics of conspiracy theories are not altogether negative and have the potential to work for good by acting as an early warning system for signals of social decay such as large-scale corruption, dishonesty and abuse, “reminding us that systems have failed in the past, and still do”.

“Some scholars view conspiracy theories as a symptom, rather than the cause, of social dysfunction. They draw attention to the skeletons in the closet, the victims of bad science, unethical research, and the misuse of power against the most vulnerable among us, as well as our complacency despite the knowledge that our systems and institutions are cracked and crooked.,” Dr Mwagiru said.

Conspiracies are generally based on a questioning and distrust of the status quo and the motives of the powerful, she said, and this alertness to possible abuses of power and corruption could be valuable – “if well directed to correctly monitor appropriate indicators of regulatory malpractice, rather than unproven, alleged facts and acts”.

“By questioning and challenging dominant hierarchies, conspiracy theories remind us to be vigilant, to hold leadership and decision makers accountable, and to counteract any neglect of our systems and institutions that should be acting for the full benefit of all stakeholders.

“Indeed research is indicating that conspiracy theories and beliefs can act as early warning systems and a form of threat perception signaling areas of high potential for social, political and economic destabilization,” she said.

The energy, shared vision and purpose and communication networks of the communities built around conspiracy theories could also be a model to learn from in “instigating discussions on the dominance structures, systems and patterns of privilege that sustain inequity”, Dr Mwagiru said.

“Could the fervour generated by conspiracy theories be focused similarly to a consideration of proven facts and evidence-based events? Alongside anti-vaccine conspiracies, might there be a narrative similarly as potent on ‘vaccine-elitism’? The evident unequal access to vaccines is a widely debated issue currently and one that merits attention as an illustration of ongoing power plays at the expense of the vulnerable. This too is worthy of conspiracy-level mass attention.”
Useful resources:

University of Stellenbosch Business School
The internationally accredited University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB) offers MBA, Master’s, MPhil and PhD programmes as well as executive education programmes – all focused on the development of business leadership. Visit our InfoCentre or website.

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