Inside the war waged by Pete Evans and the anti-vaxxers
A war against science and fact is being fought on social media by small but noisy groups of anti-vaxxers - and experts warn unless we fight back, the crazy conspiracists might win.
The COVID-19 pandemic and hunt for a vaccine has led to misinformation and conspiracy theories go viral as these groups outsmart "crackdowns" by social media giants.
Associate Professor Margie Danchin, paediatrician and immunisation expert with the Murdoch Children's Research Institute, said COVID-19 had provided a perfect platform to exploit fear.
"There has been a massive uptick in anti-vax activity in the media, particularly on Facebook, a 900 per cent increase in May," Prof Danchin said.
"They are selling a powerful narrative and they are selling fear. We have our work cut out for us and we need to be far more proactive.
"It has been the perfect platform for the anti-vax community to promote their conspiracy theories. Unfortunately it will get worse and we need to be on the front foot."
Pete Evans, Kate and Anthony Golle, and Frank and Taylor Winterstein are all using Facebook and Instagram to promote conspiracy theories, rally supporters to action and spread misinformation.
Prof Danchin said Australia needs to counter with a new, strong pro-vaccine social media campaign.
"Our pro-vax messaging and the science community is perceived by these people as very vanilla," she said.
"The battle for this is occurring on social media, we need to be smarter and we need to have a presence on social media.
"We need influencers that are acceptable to the community, not some stuffy old man in a jacket who is a scientist.
"You need a powerful pro-vax advocate who is engaging where the conversation is occurring. It will become a big global problem in the next 12 months.
"Why 60 Minutes promotes somebody like Pete Evans and puts him on national television talking about refusing vaccination is completely beyond me. This whole message sells and that is why the anti-vax message is so dangerous."
Prof Danchin said there was already anecdotal evidence routine vaccination was slipping.
"The most pressing concern is the potential drop in routine immunisation coverage," she said.
"We have had anecdotal evidence of some providers advising parents to delay routine vaccination and the parents themselves delaying vaccines because of concerns about exposure to COVID at the GPs or GPs have restricted accessibility."
Last year, social media giants announced a crackdown on misinformation. A spokeswoman for Facebook told The Sunday Telegraph: "To combat vaccine misinformation, we work hard to reduce its spread on our platforms, and show legitimate, credible sources to give people accurate information. Leading global health organisations, such as the World Health Organisation, have publicly identified verifiable vaccine hoaxes; if these vaccine hoaxes appear on our platforms we will take action against them".
However, anti-vaxxers are easily outwitting Facebook by replacing words like "Plandemic" - the recently pulled nonsensical conspiracy film claiming that COVID-19 was planned - to "pl@ndemic", or changing from "vaccine" to "va((ine".
They have also adopted less offensive language against those who do vaccinate.
"That is to try and make them appear less marginalised and more socially acceptable," A/Prof Danchin said.
"They are appealing to the mindset of the community around 'I want to make my own decisions and I want to be pro my own choice'.
"It is clever, but of course it is completely anti-vax."
"I'm not a big fan of social media censorship because as soon as you do that you feed into the conspiracy theories that we are not telling the truth," Dr Harry Nespolin, President of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said.
"It will be interesting to see how committed the anti-vaxxers are if they can't leave the country unless they have a COVID-19 vaccination."
But it is the fact that life will never be the same again without a vaccine that has triggered the upsurge in anti-vaccine sentiment.
Reading the writing on the wall with his recent outing as an anti-vaxxer - and his criticism of scientists who he alleges are corrupted by the process of academia - Pete Evans has announced his is taking his content off Facebook and Instagram.
"It is always going to be a bit of an arms race where changes are made by social media then anti-vaccine activists will try and develop other ways to keep their voice being heard," said Maryke Steffens, researcher at the Centre for Health Informatics at Macquarie University's Australian Institute of Health Innovation.
Ms Steffens has studied the spread of misinformation on social media.
"Social media has played a powerful role, and for some reasons rumours and misinformation and falsehoods spread more readily than truth does," she said.
"There are no gatekeepers, before you might have had a health journalist or science journalist who goes and looks at research, speaks to experts and makes a judgment about what is credible and what isn't and you don't put the stuff that is not credible in the newspaper. There is a sense of responsibility but, on social media, that system doesn't exist."
Australian health authorities and vaccine providers need to address the imbalance on social media and begin to run their own hearts and minds campaign.
"It is legitimate to have questions if you are a parent and you want to do the best thing by your child," she said.
"But it is the place of these organisations to engage and provide credible information and so in order to do that they need to build their presence on social media.
"It can't be an unbalanced situation where there is a lot of anti-vaccine activist voices and misinformation and there is not enough of that presence from the pro-vaccine community.
"Traditionally science and health communicators have come from a perspective of putting facts out and they are not going to be as appealing as those personal narratives and emotions or stories about what they perceive as a vaccine injury.
"Those stories can be powerful."
Originally published as Inside the social media war waged by Paleo Pete and the anti-vaxxers