Europe’s Anti-Vaccine Backlash


November 11, 2020


Pfizer’s announcement that its coronavirus vaccine candidate is upwards of 90% effective was met with a surge in global engagement with anti-vaccination themes online, particularly in Europe. Moreover, the reaction stands out compared to the one prompted by the Russian government’s certification of its own coronavirus vaccine in August. This represents the continuation of a trend we first noted in early-October: that the anti-vaccination movement was gaining momentum online in anticipation of a vaccine becoming widely available.

ICYMI: Anti-Vaccine Engagement Starts Building in Late Summer

CNBC featured Predata’s analysis of steadily increasing online engagement with anti-vaccination misinformation beginning in late summer, noting the threat to vaccine adoption once it is available. Engagement had continued to increase since then, peaking in the middle of October.

European Reaction to Pfizer Stands Out…

The trend continued as expected following Pfizer’s announcement of positive trial results, though in contrast to the mid-October peak, the reaction was primarily concentrated among European audiences.

The most engaged audiences—French, Italian, and German speakers—are all linked to countries that recently reimposed nationwide coronavirus restrictions. French speakers were particularly focused on Europe’s deadliest-ever vaccine disaster, in Lübeck, Germany in 1930.

…And Outpaces Russian Vaccine Approval

Pfizer’s announcement prompted more European engagement with anti-vaccination themes than the Russian government’s certification of its coronavirus vaccine back in August. The contrast is notable, given the widespread distrust over the Russian vaccine across Europe as well as the anti-vaccine misinformation amplified in Russian government propaganda.

Bottom Line

That European engagement with anti-vaccine misinformation following the Pfizer announcement spiked higher than engagement following the Russian government vaccine certification may indicate misinformation actors are explicitly targeting the credibility of vaccines European countries are likely to offer their citizens. France, Italy, and Germany have already faced significant resistance since the summer over their coronavirus restrictions, much of which has been grounded in conspiracy theories. Misinformation directly targeting the vaccines they intend to offer their citizens represents yet another threat to public health authorities seeking to contain the pandemic.

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