COVID and vaccine conspiracies on the rise in Ontario

A study commissioned by the Ontario Medical Association suggests the spread of COVID hoaxes online is highest in Toronto and Eastern Ontario


A study released by the Ontario Medical Association (OMA) last week indicates the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines to fight the virus is on the rise online.

The governing body of physicians in the province hired Ottawa-based Advanced Symbolics Inc. (ASI) to conduct a review of social media activity on the coronavirus.

ASI’s research suggests that fears about the virus, which had been on the decline, are on the rise again amid the surge of new variants. So is the spread of misinformation about the virus and vaccines, including conspiracy theories that vaccines cause polio and that recipients will be implanted with a chip.

The research was based on a review of data collected from the social media accounts of 200,000 Ontarians between March 2020 and March 2021. It found that the spread of COVID hoaxes online is highest among both men and women between the ages of 55 and 64, the same cohort that would now be eligible for the vaccine.

ASI’s report offers that “It’s not clear why this age group now is responsible for so much misinformation on social media, but it is concerning, given that many of them are now eligible for COVID vaccines.”

The study indicates that most of those spreading misinformation online are sharing details from right-leaning blogs and websites that cover American politics. One site in particular, which ASI researchers are not naming so as not to drive traffic to it, is responsible for more than a quarter of all online traffic related to COVID conspiracies in Ontario.

While the study draws no conclusions as to what extent online misinformation may be contributing to vaccine hesitancy in Ontario, ASI’s research found that just under six per cent of the province’s population engaged in the COVID conspiracies online.

OMA president Samantha Hill says in a statement released with the study that “This new data demonstrates this ongoing issue of misinformation needs to be addressed in every community and demographic group.”  

According to the OMA’s findings, overall traffic was highest in the Ottawa-Gatineau region, with 6,575 people per 100,000 engaged in sharing misinformation about the virus and vaccines. Toronto ranked second, with 6,495. Kingston was third with 6,095. Of the remaining seven cities ranked in the top 10 all except one (Kitchener-Cambridge Waterloo with 5,117)) are in Eastern Ontario. They are Pembroke (5,054), Cornwall (4,021), Peterborough (3,782), Kawartha-Lakes (3,660), Petawawa (3,342) and Belleville (2,258).

Recent public opinion polls actually suggest that the number of Canadians who want to get vaccinated as soon as possible has grown to some 66 per cent nationally – including out West where vaccine hesitancy has been highest. Politics is playing a big role in that phenomenon. Conservative voters are six times more likely to say they won’t be vaccinated than other voters.

In Ontario, where we’ve been inundated early in the vaccine rollout with news reports of vaccination clinics with not enough arms to jab, vaccine hesitancy has been seen as a possible contributing factor. But the province’s slower-than-expected vaccine rollout is more to blame for appointments not being filled.

During a technical briefing with reporters this week, senior officials with the Ministry of Health laid out some of the factors complicating that effort. Vaccine hesitancy was described as a “challenge” in some communities but not an influence of concern.

The issue of vaccine hesitancy, however, has coloured Premier Doug Ford’s messaging on vaccinations when he’s been asked by reporters about why vaccines delivered by the feds have been slow to roll out.

At his press briefing last week to announce an “emergency brake shutdown,” for example, Ford went as far as to suggest that there’s an issue with vaccine “uptake” among frontline health care workers. The reasons for that have more to do with access.

The province’s data shows that some 83 per cent of frontline workers in health care have been vaccinated. Others, says Sharleen Stewart, president of SEIU Healthcare, face financial and other barriers to vaccines. Lack of paid sick days, for example, which the province has repeatedly refused to implement, and the fact that some health care workers have to travel long distances to get vaccinated remain obstacles.

But some recent polling by EKOS suggests changing advice on the use of the AstraZeneca vaccine – the vaccine is currently not being recommended for use in people under 55 – has caused more Canadians to say they’d rather wait for their shot.

On that front, Ford has engaged in some vaccine safety misinformation himself, saying recently that the province would prefer to wait on Pfizer and Moderna vaccine shipments before ramping up vaccinations rather than “roll the dice” on AstraZeneca. The premier got his vaccine shot Friday. It was AstraZeneca. Moreover, the province’s own data shows that an overwhelming number of the 4.5 million vaccine doses received by the province from the feds as from Pfizer and Moderna. Only some 200,000 are AstraZeneca.

@enzodimatteo

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