France is one of the countries of the world with more skepticism towards vaccines, Breeding ground for spreading false information by anti-vaccine activistss hard-liners, writes the BBC’s disinformation specialist, Marianna Spring.
In his spare time, Gilles loves to watch science fiction movies and read comics -Comics in French-.
It also helps run a conspiracy-oriented Facebook group that features 50,000 members, many of which spread falsehoods about the coronavirus.
“I felt in my gut that this whole thing was exaggerated and wrong,” says Gilles. He does not deny – like others in the group – that COVID-19 is real. Instead, it harbors vague suspicions about the disease, potential cures, and alleged cover-ups.
And, from the messages he has seen in the group, he does not want a covid vaccine either.
He fears, despite all the scientific evidence, that vaccines have been developed too quickly to be safe. Gilles is part of a bigger picture.
Rise in social media
The Facebook group that Gilles helps manage is just one example of a broader trend: an increase in anti-vaccine content in French on social media over the last year.
Investigations by BBC Monitoring (the unit that monitors global media) found that the number of followers of pages sharing anti-vaccine content in French increased in 2020, from 3.2 million “likes” to almost 4.1 million.
These pages do not address legitimate medical questions, they are leagues away from the current scientific and political discussions taking place in Europe and elsewhere.
Instead, they are run by people who have firmly resolved to go against vaccines and who spread delusional false rumors of vaccines that kill millions, contain tracking devices, or alter our DNA.
French anti-vaccine pages also tend to mix up anti-system messages. Many of the discussions revolve around concerns that covid inoculations could become mandatory, with dissenting and opposing communities fearing that French democracy will be replaced by the so-called “health dictatorship”.
Currently, vaccines against covid-19 are not mandatory in France, although minors are required by law to be vaccinated against some diseases.
Facebook claims to be investigating the groups and pages targeted by the BBC investigation and claims to have removed 12 million segments of harmful misinformation about COVID-19 and approved vaccines.
“Last week we announced additional measures to curb the spread of harmful disinformation in groups,” stated a company spokesperson, “including restricting the scope of those who violate our rules.”
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In the group that Gilles runs, outlandish false conspiracy theories appear alongside messages expressing more moderate views, such as opposition to making vaccines mandatory.
He disagrees with the extreme content, but says he finds it difficult to dismiss all objectionable messages.
But there are others who are doing their best to fight the wave of anti-vaccine conspiracies. They have created their own pages on Facebook, infiltrating spaces on social networks where falsehoods abound.
Marie – a pseudonym – runs a group of volunteers who promote online messages in favor of vaccines. You want to remain anonymous for fear of your safety.
“We suffered many death threats,” she explains, somewhat upset, from her home in Paris, “from people on social media who read our page and don’t like what they see.”
I asked him why he continues when he has to face that abuse.
“I love science,” he replies, “and I hate false information.”
His Facebook page gives his followers exact information about vaccines, urges them to discuss with people and even to persuade them to get vaccinated.
History and freedom
This battle for truth is raging around the world, but it is particularly virulent in France.
According to an Ipsos survey conducted last year, only 40% of the French population was willing to receive the Covid-19 vaccine, although a more recent study indicates that that number has risen to more than half.
However, Tristan Mendes France, a university professor who helps run a site called Conspiracy Watch, remains concerned about the numbers. 15 years ago, he says, polls indicated that only about a tenth of the French population was skeptical about vaccines.
“It is important to differentiate between those who are skeptical of vaccines and those who are absolutely anti-vaccination,” he says.
“In his view, the online anti-vaccine movement has thrived in France in particular because it takes advantage of a pre-existing skepticism against the authority and pharmaceutical companies.
It’s not just about online conspiracy theories. According to Medes France and other experts, vaccine skepticism has deeper and more complicated roots: a combination of deep mistrust of the state, a passion for personal freedom and historical failures.
The country went through a veritable vaccination scandal in 2009. The French government bought enough doses of the H1N1 “swine flu” vaccine to inoculate the entire population.
It cost more than $ 700 million, but with only a few hundred swine flu deaths in the country, many did not want to be vaccinated. They considered it a huge waste of money.
In recent weeks, France was one of several European countries to discontinue use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because of fears related to blood clots.
Medical regulators in the United Kingdom and the European Union concluded that there is no evidence that the vaccine produces clots and that the injection is safe and effective.
But it has become another story used by French anti-vaccine activists to promote their conspiracy narrative.
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On the other hand there is the so-called “Didier Raoult effect”.
Raoult is a famous doctor in France, noted for his intellect and outspoken opinions.
“In our country it is a crime to be smart. It is very difficult for me not to be smart. I apologize,” he said with a laugh as he spoke from his research institute in Marseille.
Despite his once stellar reputation in scientific research, Dr. Raoult caused controversy when he advocated for the use of a drug called hydroxychloroquine to treat the coronavirus.
His claims were echoed by Donald Trump, but they lacked scientific evidence. The incident resulted in the issuance of a formal complaint from his peers in the medical community.
Aside from the drug controversy, Dr. Raoult has become – inadvertently – a hero to hardline activists promoting anti-vaccine conspiracies. Fictitious quotes falsely attributed to the doctor have been circulating on social media.
Although these messages are false, the doctor still harbors controversial opinions about vaccines. He says he’s not sure people under the age of 65 should get vaccinated against COVID-19. That’s despite the benefits pointed out by public health experts: younger people can be seriously affected by the virus, and mass vaccination can limit dangerous mutations of the virus.
Vulnerability to misinformation
Dr. Raoult’s approach seems to be part of a general perspective in Francophone Europe. At one extreme, he sometimes overflows into the area of conspiratorial thinking.
Gilles, the sci-fi buff, is sure he doesn’t want a COVID-19 vaccine. He is indifferent to catching the disease.
“I don’t think anything is going to happen,” he says. “I may have flu symptoms, but that’s unlikely.”
Covid-19 has a higher death rate than flu in all age groups, except perhaps in children under 12 years of age. The long-term effects of the coronavirus can also be severe, and it is also more infectious than the flu.
But this persistent suspicion leaves Gilles – and others like him – vulnerable to all kinds of misinformation.
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