It seems no good deed goes unpunished on social media.
An unprecedented unified effort by pharmaceutical companies worldwide has vastly accelerated the development of vaccines to seek an end to the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, on the internet, pharma brands face a combative environment of conspiracy theorists, anti-vaxxers, and nation-states intent on disrupting and delaying their success with damaging digital chatter.
As we explored in an earlier article on vaccine misinformation, this harmful content shared and spread on social media platforms could trigger a deluge of false adverse events on pharma company-owned and brand-sponsored vaccine social media pages.
The challenge of complying with the regulatory requirements for adverse event reporting is already a burden for pharmaceutical companies. If their pharmacovigilance and drug safety teams are forced to contend with a flood of false reports of side effects once the vaccine enters the market, it could compromise the integrity of a new vaccine.
Like the second wave of coronavirus has devastated much of the U.S., a second wave of mis/disinformation—building on false narratives and conspiracy theories that have been floated for months—could target specific pharma brands with the goal of damaging their reputation and financial health.
We have also identified the ways in which this false information is delivered, shared, and amplified to large populations through the highly skilled use of both traditional social media platforms and growing alternatives to more mainstream offerings.
Pharma brands need to be aware of, and prepared for, a targeted escalation of mis/disinformation wherever it appears. Without the help of a specialist partner to discover and rapidly alert them to potentially harmful content, pharma communicators will be hard pressed to fulfill their critical role in promoting vaccine confidence—and to meet their responsibility to protect their brands.
THE PUSH TO DENIGRATE VACCINES AND AFFILIATED PHARMA BRANDS
Social media has been exploited by bad actor instigators—conspiracy theorists, ideological objectors, and nation-state actors—who use misleading data, unverifiable rumors, ethical objections, and fanciful plots to offer skeptics a shortcut to certainty through the complexity of science surrounding the pandemic.
Armed with these simplistic “answers and explanations,” well-meaning but misinformed supporters spread this misinformation and effectively subvert public confidence in vaccines. Most of these unwitting participants have little understanding of how vaccines work or their historical role in eliminating diseases that once crippled and killed.
Anti-vaxxers, part of the ideological objectors, are a growing concern. An investigation of more than 400 anti-vaxx social media accounts by the Center for Countering Digital Hate, reveals 58 million followers. About 150 of the largest accounts have gained at least 7.8 million followers since 2019, a 19% increase.
While mainstream social media platforms have removed biased and misleading “documentaries” meant to undermine trust in pharmaceutical companies, menacing content is now migrating to and proliferating on alt-tech--a group of websites, social media platforms, and applications that position themselves as alternatives to more mainstream offerings.
To avoid the strictures of mainstream platforms, instigators use these accommodating alternatives—including Parler, Gab, Telegram, and Voat—to circulate unchecked medical mis/disinformation under a faulty claim of free speech. This is where you’ll find the discredited “Plandemic” video and other fringe conspiracy theories on vaccines, whose distortions can migrate to pharma brands’ owned social media pages.
“Digital media are critical for contemporary activism—even low-effort ‘clicktivism’ is politically consequential and contributes to offline participation,” wrote Deen Freelon, Alice Marwick, and Daniel Kreiss in Science magazine. “Although left-wing actors operate primarily through ‘hashtag activism’ and offline protest, right-wing activists manipulate legacy media, migrate to alternative platforms, and work strategically with partisan media to spread their messages.”
Unfortunately, this torrent of falsehoods on alt-tech about vaccines and pharma companies—coupled with the accelerated development prompting anxiety over safety—translates into vaccine hesitancy, one of the 10 leading threats to global health, according to the WHO.
Dr. Anthony Fauci said that hesitancy among believers could become a serious issue as the nation seeks to suppress the pandemic. “They actually don’t think that this is a problem,” he said. “Despite a quarter million deaths, despite more than 11 million infections, despite 150,000 new infections a day, they don’t believe it’s real.”
CONTINUED SPREAD OF MIS/DISINFORMATION THREATENS PHARMA BRANDS
Along with the newest claims that promising vaccines are harmful because testing has been rushed, a persistent string of false and unsubstantiated claims about vaccines now poses harm to pharma brands.
The main purpose of these conspiracy theories and intentional distortions of fact is to attract attention and generate discussion among the widest audience as quickly as possible—before the false narrative can be disputed, corrected, or removed.
One allegation is that the COVID-19 vaccine will cause infertility as part of a depopulation campaign funded by Bill Gates. In truth, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has funded safe and effective polio, malaria, and meningitis vaccination campaigns in Africa and Asia.
An ancillary narrative claims that individuals such as Gates and Fauci created and spread the virus to profit from a vaccine.
These claims about the virus’s origin have no scientific support, and there is no evidence that Fauci or Gates has benefited from the pandemic or profited from a vaccine.
One narrative that generates the most vehement reactions among the new wave of anti-vaxxers is that the COVID-19 vaccine alters your DNA. The claim exhibits a fundamental misunderstanding of genetics. Some of the early vaccines contain a fragment of the virus's genetic material, mRNA, which does not affect or interact with our DNA in any way.
Some of the more colorful narratives around the COVID-19 vaccine are based on ideological objections on religious grounds. Citing ethical concerns about the use of fetal cells in vaccine development, Bishop Joseph Brennan of California is urging Catholics not to “jump on the COVID-19 vaccine bandwagon.”
While Brennan singled out the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for criticism, there is no indication that it was developed using either fetal cells or human embryonic stem cells. “Not a single stage has had it,” Pfizer spokeswoman Jerica Pitts said.
HOW PHARMA BRANDS CAN RESPOND TO THE SOCIAL MEDIA ASSAULT
As instigators adjust their sights from vaccines in general to specific pharma companies, brand communicators need to have distinct measures in place to defend against a social media assault on multiple fronts.
This onslaught can range from a surge in false adverse event reports meant to cripple pharmacovigilance teams to review bombing intended to tarnish your brand reputation to coordinated online campaigns aimed at disrupting business operations.
You need a partner who specializes in both analyzing instigator and influencer signals across the web and understands the regulatory requirements of detecting potential adverse events on social media. Combining human intelligence with artificial intelligence, an early-warning risk intelligence solution can detect harmful content like falsified adverse events, allowing pharma brands to seamlessly integrate adverse event detection with existing pharmacovigilance reporting and stay ahead of any unknown issues surfacing online.
Pharmaceutical companies find themselves in the public eye like no other time in recent memory. It’s up to brand communicators to recognize the potential advantages of this increased scrutiny along with the possible liabilities.
Countering the false narratives, promoting the truth, and being prepared for a potential flood of false adverse events is your best strategy to refute the fear and confusion sowed by instigators.
The more closely pharma brands can manage risks to reputation and brand value, the better chance communicators have to control the conversation, genuinely engage with consumers on social media, and work to promote confidence in the vaccines that can bring this pandemic finally to an end.