- Our research shows that memes form part of a highly sophisticated strategy to spread and monetise health disinformation.
- Dismissing them as harmless jokes is to grossly underestimate their influence – and bolsters their power to spread potentially harmful health messages.
Anti-vaccine memes have a long history
Memes aren’t a recent invention. They have featured prominently in anti-vaccination messaging for centuries.
When widespread smallpox immunisation began in the early 19th century, political cartoons published in print media used memes (see image below) to evoke fear about the safety of the vaccine.
- The meme “vaccines cause autism”, which appeared on billboards and was circulated widely in the media, provoked doubts about the safety of the vaccine.
- The internet enables memes to be created anonymously, repurposed and shared at scale – making them a highly effective medium for spreading health disinformation.
- Memes play an integral role in disinformation campaigns by facilitating fear, uncertainty and doubt.
Influencers and money
- Our study analysed how popular anti-vaccine influencers used memes to galvanise the anti-vaccine movement during the COVID pandemic.
- First, memes were used to vilify the government and social institutions, portraying them as corrupt and politically compromised.
- Influencers suggested the unvaccinated were being persecuted, using evocative imagery to imply a false equivalence between those who remain unvaccinated by choice and the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.
- Vaccination was associated with infertility, low sex drive and a lack of critical thinking.
- To establish group membership and promote a sense of belonging, influencers referred to those who are anti vaccines as their “soul family”.
Going viral – and avoiding challenge
- Several influencers provided their followers with “meme drops”: packages of memes with dissemination instructions.
- These memes were tested and produced in meme factories, then distributed monthly to a mass audience via personal newsletters and websites, encouraging followers to spread anti-vaccination content.
- By adapting memes to current affairs, influencers increased their relevance and likelihood of going viral.
- Under the protective guise of humour and satire, memes can evade fact checkers and content moderators while promoting anti-vaccine myths and unauthorised treatments.
- Memes may not look threatening – but that’s why they are such effective super spreaders of health disinformation.
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.