The COVID-19 pandemic has been accompanied by an "infodemic" - an overwhelming surge of false information spreading mostly online.

Now, as the last Covid restrictions are stripped away in Wales, this tidal wave of misinformation could be keeping us from truly leaving the pandemic behind, some experts warn.

Around 5 million people remain unvaccinated in the UK.

Research suggests that many have not been jabbed due to fears about the vaccine having potential side effects, or concerns over its speedy development process, including false claims that have nevertheless spread like wildfire on social media.

Dr Bnar Talabani MBE is a doctor and immunologist from Cardiff. Her videos debunking conspiracy theories about the vaccine on TikTok have seen her gain more than 17,000 followers.

She says that much of the hesitancy she encounters around taking the vaccine stem from misinformation circulated on social media.

“The common claims about the vaccines that I see are that they were developed too quickly, that the side effects are worse that Covid, that they cause infertility and that they change our DNA,” Dr Talabani said.

“All of which is just utter nonsense.”

She began posting online about coronavirus in early 2020, and is now part of Team Halo, a global network of doctors working to end the pandemic once and for all by challenging vaccine misinformation on social media.

“Even among my own patient cohort who are vulnerable to the virus, many of them were reluctant to get the vaccine,” Dr Talabani said.

“I had patients telling me, ‘I don’t want the vaccine because it changes my DNA.’ Even before the scientific community had a chance to communicate the science, misinformation had already spread like wildfire.”   

For Stefan Rollnick, an expert in online misinformation, 2020 was a rude awakening on how wild online theories could quickly evolve into real-world carnage.

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“In the early stages of 2020, we started to see these bizarre fake news articles about 5G and Covid-19,” he said.

“We didn’t really understand where they were coming from- but then two weeks later people were setting fire to 5G masts and harassing telecoms engineers.”

Stefan runs the Misinformation Cell, part of Cardiff-based PR firm Lynn PR. He describes it as a “misinformation consultancy” that helps clients struggling to deal with online misinformation and harassment.

His team recently partnered with Public Health Wales, after their social media campaign encouraging pregnant women to take the vaccine was overrun by anti-vaxxers and organised trolls.       

They quickly found that most of the abuse was being driven by a small number of users who effectively colonised comment sections, harassing and intimidating other users with legitimate questions while spreading dangerous misinformation.

“Anti-vaxxers don’t represent a significant portion of the population. But when allowed to run wild, they give off the impression that they represent a vast proportion of that online community,” said Stefan.

“That’s super dangerous, as it means that by targeting specific comment sections and flooding them with negativity, trolls can create the mistaken impression that there is a consensus around these radical ideas.

"That’s how they mainstream them.”

Likewise, Dr Talabani has found that the vast majority of people who interact with her online are not anti-vaxxers, but instead people who have been swayed by misinformation and are worried about the effects of the vaccine.

“If you take the time to sit down and go through the data with these individuals and explain it, they’re very receptive to it,” she said.

“A lot of them will go on to not only have the vaccine, but also get better at recognising dangerous misinformation when they encounter it.”

Despite their small size, however, groups of anti-vaxxers are still able to go viral and spread false claims with remarkable ease.

It’s a state of affairs that has seen social media giants such as TikTok and Facebook come under increased scrutiny. Last year, a series of damaging leaks revealed that Facebook has consistently resisted changes designed to limit the spread of misinformation over fears it would make the site less profitable.  

“That’s the water we’re swimming in,” said Stefan. “It’s not an ideal place to be, and it is an uphill battle.”

“The problem has been massively exacerbated by social media companies orientating their platforms primarily around generating profit, and only really taking action to limit the damage their algorithms.”   

The UK government has pledged to tackle the issue with the Online Safety Bill, which would make social media companies legally responsible for dangerous content posted on their sites.

But the real-world impact of misinformation, especially around Covid vaccines, continues to be severe - especially amongst ethnic minority groups, which have higher rates of vaccine hesitancy.

Research has shown that a lack of culturally and linguistically appropriate information, as well as a lack of trust in organisations promoting vaccine uptake, has left individuals from these backgrounds especially vulnerable to misinformation about the vaccine.   

“A lot of misinformation was being spread in different languages, but there was even less availability of accurate information in those different languages,” said Dr Talabani.

“There is a real need for this sort of engagement among ethnic minorities, because are marginalised communities with worse health outcomes, and there is such a lack of trust.”

Reaching those that have remained wary about the vaccine is essential to ending the pandemic. But it is unlikely to stem the tide of misinformation.

Already, Stefan’s team is dealing with other, fast-growing areas of disinformation - most recently, the war in Ukraine - he thinks that the "infodemics" to come may prove to be far more dangerous.

“If the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 created such a fertile ground for misinformation, then you can be sure as hell that climate change and its consequences are going to do the exact same thing,” he said.

The consequences of the surge in anti-vaccine misinformation are equally stark. “The anti-vaccine movement has grown because of this pandemic,” said Dr Talabani.

“We’ve had the lowest uptake of childhood vaccines in ten years in the UK. So we’re going to see the emergence of viruses and bacterial infections that we haven’t seen in generations because of the lies told by anti-vaxxers.”

“I think in that regard, the damage is already done.”