COVID-19: How Facebook Contributes To Vaccine Hesitancy Among Young Nigerians
Since the COVID-19 vaccination rollout in Nigeria in March 2021, some persons have been hesitant to get vaccinated. In this category are some young people between the ages of 18 and 30. They are either slow to vaccinate or have decided not to ever get vaccinated because of one anti-vaccine content or another they read or watched on Facebook
Sonia Olarewaju, 23, said she decided not to get vaccinated against COVID-19 because of some videos she watched on Facebook last year. She vividly remembers a particular video where those vaccinated became magnetic to metals.
“I was supposed to get vaccinated, but I don’t want to because I am scared of that stuff,” she said.
Olarewaju said she had not seen any video on Facebook that counters that information till date.
Asked if she intends to get vaccinated someday, she replied, “The fear is still there o!.”
Idakwo Joy, 21, decided not to get vaccinated after watching a video shared many times by some persons on Facebook last year.
The video said COVID-19 vaccine had something to do with the antichrist, and that people shouldn’t take it because it had implants that could make people magnetic.
She said, “A Nigerian man spoke in the video; and he compiled different videos from even outside Nigeria to proof that COVID-19 vaccines contain things that can magnet objects to the particular spot where people were vaccinated.”
Idakwo said she had not seen any other video on Facebook countering the content of the video or tagging it as misinformation.
Aziraymond Onyinye Angela, 19, said she has seen many posts on Facebook saying COVID-19 vaccines originated from the number 666 (which is the mark of the beast according to Biblical prophesy), that it causes coronavirus in people, and also makes them magnetic.
She said she also saw a video on the platform and other social media platforms at the middle and end of last year.
“According to the video, COVID-19 vaccine uses so many signs and symbols to create coronavirus in people, and it is not good. Since then, I have been having ‘double mind’ about going for the vaccination since,” Angela said.
Also, Agada Onu, 28, said he had not been vaccinated against COVID-19 because he stumbled on a post on Facebook in May last year.
“In the post, a man narrated the side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine on him, which include malaria, headache and severe body pain. After reading it, I became scared and made up my mind never to take it,” he said.
His efforts to retrieve the post and share, however, failed because he ‘did not share the post and couldn’t really remember the name of the person who posted the information.’
Gloria Promise, 25, said she saw several items on Facebook early last year showing people who got paralysed and began to magnet spoons and metallic objects following COVID-19 vaccination.
Furthermore, Clara Mabogunje, 25, has decided not to get vaccinated because of the various posts about the side effects of the vaccine she had seen on Facebook.
Egba Philex, 28, said his COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy was because, “Firstly, I have serious phobia for injection. Then, I read on Facebook that the vaccine could cause clotting of blood. That further aggravated my fear. At another time, I read on Facebook that COVID-19 is not real and there are some conspiracy theories behind it.”
Stella Odukola, 19, said she has been vaccinated against COVID-19 but was hesitant for a long while before getting vaccinated.
“I was literally forced to get vaccinated by my parents because I didn’t want to take it,” she said.
She said this was as a result of articles, comments and other posts on Facebook and other social media platforms that government is trying to track people thorough the vaccines. They also said that people who took the vaccines would die after two years.
She said she repeatedly stumbled on the posts, and they were not made by friends or relatives.
Aminu, 23, who wants to be identified with just his first name, said his hesitancy for COVID-19 vaccination was partly because of the persistent anti-vaccine comments he had been seeing on Facebook since the rollout in the country.
He said it was also because many youths around him shied away from the vaccination.
“Many people around me don’t belief in COVID-19 itself , not to talk of the vaccination, and since they said virus mainly affected old people , why should we young people bother about the vaccination?” he asked.
Adoga Theresa, 22, said she read a post on Facebook early last year, where fear was expressed that the vaccine could affect fertility.
“As a young woman who is not married, I decided to stay away from the vaccine,” she said.
Lanre Oye, 29, said his hesitancy had a lot to do with Facebook . His friend showed him a post on the platform that was very scary.
“The post stated that those who took the vaccine would die after two years. That really scared me because I don’t want to die young.
“I can’t find it again; I learnt that Facebook deleted millions of information about COVID-19,” he added.
Umar Hussein, 26, said he had seen posts on Facebook from medical personnel, including those from outside the country warning about the way COVID-19 vaccines were quickly developed and its negative effects. “So I am not interested in getting vaccinated,” he said.
During this investigation, youths were majorly interviewed in Abuja and Lagos, the epicentres of COVID-19 in Nigeria, as well as Makurdi and other places.
Findings revealed that some of them still hold tenaciously to the information they got earlier on Facebook, even when they could no longer retrieve the said posts.
The situation is further worsened by negative comments about the vaccines still currently being posted or circulated by Nigerians on the platform.
Our reporter also met a lot youths who were vaccine hesitant but who could not strongly link the misinformation to Facebook.
Jegede Priscillia, 19, said her hesitancy had to do more with what she heard from other people than Facebook. She heard the vaccines had side effects and those who took them died.
Marvellous Adediran, 19, said his neighbour, a youth, told him that those who took the vaccine had received the mark of the beast. And it is the devil’s plan to plant things in people.
He said he had to take the vaccine because it is one of the requirements to resume school for his university studies. He has been very scared.
A growing research shows the power of Facebook to spread misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
According to a report by the Centre for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a UK/US non-profit and non-governmental organisation, Facebook is still the leading platform for anti-vaxxers, hosting accounts with 31.9 million followers in total.
The chief executive officer of the CCDH, Imran Ahmed said, “Facebook, Google and Twitter have put policies into place to prevent the spread of vaccine misinformation, yet till date, all have failed to satisfactorily enforce those policies. All have been particularly ineffective at removing harmful and dangerous misinformation about coronavirus vaccines.”
More than one in 10 Nigerians used Facebook as of December 2020, nearly a third of which were between the ages of 18 and 24.
Vaccine hesitancy is a significant factor in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Nigeria.
The result of a study on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy and willingness to pay indicates that Facebook is the most preferred social media platform for Nigerian teenagers and youths (75.0 per cent).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) described vaccine hesitancy as “the delay in acceptance or refusal of vaccination despite the availability of services.”
According to the Nigeria Health Watch’s COVID-19 perception survey 2021, although 84.9 per cent of the respondents had heard about the vaccine, only 68.3 per cent are willing to take it.
The Nigerian government targets to vaccinate 111,776,503 eligible Nigerians in order to achieve herd immunity. However, data from the National Primary Health Care Development Agency (NPHCDA) showed that only 11, 031, 267 persons in the country have been fully vaccinated against as at 20 March 2022. This represents 9.9 per cent of the target population.
The total number of Nigerians that have been partially vaccinated is 20, 259, 242 and represents 16.4 per cent of the target population.
This is still far below the plan of the government to vaccinate 50 per cent of the total population of the country by the end of March 2022.
The NPHCDA did not respond to a Freedom of Information (FOI) act request for the age disaggregated data of Nigerians vaccinated against COVID-19 so far. Other efforts to get it from the agency did not yield fruit.
The data was aimed at ascertaining the exact number of Nigerians between 18 and 30 that have been vaccinated so far.
Findings of a study on socio-demographic characteristics of COVID-19 vaccine recipients in Kwara State revealed that 74 per cent were older than 40 years.
Yusuff Adebayo Adebisi, a global health researcher, said the major problem about the vaccine was misinformation.
“I was looking at the comment section of a particular post on Facebook and saw a lot of people saying bad things about COVID-19 vaccines. Imagine if I had already booked an appointment to get vaccinated, maybe the next day, once I saw those comments I would be scared.
Most information on COVID-19 vaccination in that comment section were negative. A young person who sees it will be scared to take the vaccine,” Adebisi, who is also the director of research and thought, Leadership at Global Health Focus said.
He said people also said a lot of negative things on Facebook when they saw a post on a popular musician in the country engaged by an international organisation to help promote COVID-19 vaccination.
He said that in the comment section of the post, people were saying things like ‘they gave him money to impress Nigerians to take the jab and become magnetic. They want to reduce our population. In the next two years, people that received the vaccine will definitely die.’
“So considering the fraction of the population that are actually using the social media, people get influenced by these comments and refuse to take the vaccines,” he added.
A health worker’s field experience
Rafiat Akinokun, a nurse and midwife at Sobi Specialist Hospital, Ilorin, Kwara State and an immunisation advocate with the Sabin Vaccine Institute, as well as a 2021 winner of the Nursing Now Challenge Global Solutions Initiative, observed from her experience that a large population of people who went for the COVID-19 vaccination were usually older adults or the elderly, not youths.
Her conversations with youths also showed that there was a lot of misinformation about the vaccine.
She said the social media, particularly Facebook, had been a very huge tool shaping vaccine hesitancy among youths in Ilorin.
“There was a time I was in a public vehicle and heard a youth between the age of 19 and 20 talking about a particular post he saw on Facebook, where someone had chills and fever and was unable to walk after taking the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine.
“He went further to say that COVID-19 vaccine was supposed to prevent disease, but was instead making people sick and reducing their lifespan.
“Other people in the vehicle joined in the conversation and talked about how unsafe the vaccine was, quoting the posts they saw on Facebook,” she said.
Describing how she debunks misinformation among youths, Akinokun said she held health education for them and preferred one-on-one conversation with people to calling a lot of them together.
She uses herself, a health care practitioner, as an example of someone who has taken the vaccine without facing any danger.
She also holds health education in indigenous languages and has been on various health programmes on radio and television stations.
How to tackle vaccine hesitancy among young Nigerians – Experts
Dr Emmanuel Musa, an independent public health consultant, said Facebook had, in collaboration with other organisations, pulled down some of the conspiracy theories and misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
He advised that the media be integrated in activities towards tackling vaccine hesitancy.
He said instead of deleting misleading contents on Facebook and making the youth suspicious, it is better to allow them continue to see them, while enlightening them that it is misinformation and they need to go for COVID-19 vaccination.
Dr Casmir Ifeanyi, a public health expert, said there was the need for aggressive risk communication for infectious diseases by relevant health organisations in Nigeria.
He said the Nigeria Center for Disease Control (NCDC) and the NPHCDA needed to improve their presence on Facebook and do a lot more on countering misinformation and encouraging young Nigerians to get vaccinated.
He said they should also identify social media influencers that command large followership and work with them in promoting COVID-19 vaccination and tackling hesitancy among young Nigerians.
He also said all hands must be on deck in packaging COVID-19 vaccines in a way that it would appeal to young people in the country.
A pharmacist who runs a health page on Facebook but did not want to be named said government needed to do more in sensitisation on the youth. He added that a committee should be set up to track and counter misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines on Facebook on a daily basis.
Fact-checking misinformation on Facebook
Africa Check, an independent, non-partisan organisation, has been fact- checking claims about COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic.
Allwell Okpi, a researcher and community manager at Africa Check, said they observed a lot of conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 pandemic, which extended to its vaccine.
He said, “We just keep finding different videos, audios and claims discouraging people from taking the vaccine. For instance, we have seen a number of videos of people putting spoons on their arms and saying they got vaccinated and their arms could now magnet metals.”
He said Africa Check had checked and found them to be false. He added that the fact that such false claims kept circulating spoke to how people respond to fact-checks, even when something they personally believe had been debunked.
Okpi said some prominent preachers or leaders of thought discouraging people from taking COVID-19 vaccines on Facebook also lent credibility to the conspiracy theories and claims created from them.
“It is all over the place, and one cannot say exactly if something else can come up tomorrow about the vaccines. But as much as possible, fact checkers, not just us, globally have been debunking the claims around and has been providing accurate information based on findings about the vaccines,” he said.
Okpi said Facebook had a third-party fact-checking programme, which Africa Check is part of.
“We have access to a certain backend where Facebook users flag certain posts as potentially false, especially misleading ones, and we have been identifying them.
“We have been checking them and publishing the fact checks. Facebook then uses them to warn people who are clinging to such post by saying: ‘This stuff has been fact-checked, and this is what it is.”
He said Facebook also reduced the circulation of any of such claims that has been fact-checked and proven to be false or misleading.
He said people made decisions with the information they have, and Africa Check has been engaged in fact-checking to ensure that people make decisions based on accurate facts, information and not wrong ones.
NCDC identifies trends
Yahya Disu, the head of communications, Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, said the organisation used Facebook as one of the vital communication channels to inform and educate Nigerians about infectious diseases.
He said the trends they observed about COVID-19 vaccine information on Facebook were vaccine hesitancy, myths and misconception that the virus is a hoax. A significant proportion is also swayed by the numerous conspiracy theories about the virus and the vaccines. And a significant population still demonstrates lack of knowledge about how and where to access the vaccines.
He said while the results were glaring, we must remember that beyond Nigeria, other countries in Africa and globally are facing the same challenge of vaccine hesitancy.
“While we continue to educate Nigerians on the importance of the vaccines, we urge them to make use of every opportunity provided by the government to get vaccinated. The vaccines are free, safe and effective. They are our best chance at normalcy,” he said.
What FG is doing to counter misinformation
Eunice Damisa, the director of advocacy and communication in the NPHCDA, said the agency had been consistently sharing correct information about the vaccines, including frequently asked questions and answers (FAQs), infographics across platforms, testimonials of vaccinated people and short videos of influential personalities who are fully vaccinated.
“We are leveraging partnership with Facebook to reach more Nigerians. We have a team trained on infodemic management, using real time technology to track and monitor conversations about COVID-19 vaccines, and responding swiftly,” she said.
She advised young Nigerians and all other social media users to authenticate sources of information before believing or sharing them across platforms, adding, “There are pseudo social media handles and websites created to discredit the efforts of governments across the world. Youths should be wary of them.”
Damisa said inquiries, complaints and clarity on vaccine-related issues should be sent to the NPHCDA, NCDC or partner agencies such as the WHO and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
She said the organisation’s social media team was always available to respond swiftly to any enquiry.
“The future belongs to the youth. They have a responsibility to ensure that the future is preserved. All youths should join hands with the government to ensure a healthy future for our dear country,” she added.
Ladidi Bako-Aiyegbusi, the director and head, health promotion division of the Family Health Department in the Federal Ministry of Health, said health promotion officers in local government and state offices used local structures to disseminate correct information about COVID-19 vaccines.
“The health promotion division also has social media platforms we are using to disseminate correct information about the safety of COVID-19 vaccines. We tell people that the WHO and the National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control (NAFDAC) have tested them and said they were safe,” she said.
She advised youths to only visit authentic sites for health information.
What is Facebook doing to curb misinformation?
When contacted about the platform’s contribution to COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy among young Nigerians, a Meta spokesperson said, “We have devoted unprecedented resources to fight the spread of COVID-19 and vaccine-related misinformation to promote acceptance globally.
“We have removed millions of pieces of content for violating our rules, including claiming that COVID-19 vaccines cause autism and are untested.
“We have also added warning labels to more than 195 million pieces of additional content, thanks to our global network of over 80 fact-checking partners, including three in Nigeria alone.
“We have pointed over two billion people to resources from health experts about the pandemic and the vaccine via tools like our COVID-19 Information Centre and have launched profile frames on Facebook for people to share their support for vaccines with their friends and family.”
Also providing additional information on the company’s progress on COVID-19 misinformation and vaccine promotion, Meta’s corporate communications manager, Anglophone West Africa, Oluwasola Obagbemi, said the company did not allow false claims about the vaccines or vaccination programs during the pandemic, which public health experts have advised could lead to vaccine rejection.
She said this included false claims about the safety, efficacy, ingredients, development, existence or conspiracies related to the vaccine or vaccination programme.
She said since April 2020, the organisation had been collaborating with Carnegie Mellon University and University of Maryland on a global survey to gather insights about COVID-19 symptoms, testing, vaccination rates and more.
The communications manager said, “For people in Nigeria on Facebook, vaccine acceptance has actually increased from 66 per cent to 87.3 per cent in the past 13 months.”
Obagbemi said since the start of the pandemic, the organisation had removed more than 24 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram globally for violating her policies on COVID-19 and vaccine related misinformation.
“Last year, we launched profile frames on Facebook for people to share that they have been or are planning to get vaccinated.
“More than 18million people globally have used these profile frames, and more than 25 per cent of people globally on Facebook have already seen someone use the UNICEF vaccine profile frames,” she added.
This report was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Global Health Reporting Initiative: Vaccines and Immunisation in Africa.