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  • Ross Burley

Time for footballers to stand up to vaccine disinformation

Countering disinformation really does require an all of society approach. It’s not merely the responsibility of journalists, politicians and social media companies to recognise the scale of the problem. Others need to step up too. Sportspeople are a good example. Although they don’t have a policy role in countering disinformation and conspiracy theories, their attitudes and actions play a central role in how society responds to this fundamental challenge to objective truth and reason.

So it’s disheartening to see footballers – especially those who have vocally stood up to discrimination and other societal challenges – stand silent against disinformers and malign actors who are spreading false anti-vaccine theories.

At a press conference on Friday 8th October, Gareth Southgate, the England Men’s Team head coach, said that some football players are not vaccinated due to their susceptibility to conspiracy theories prevalent on social media.

Media reports in September described how only seven of England’s 20 Premier League clubs have squads where more than 50% of players are vaccinated. According to BBC Sport’s “Football Daily” podcast, players are unwilling to publicly state whether they are vaccinated.

Now it could be that they witnessed the abuse directed at Southgate when he announced he had received the vaccine. Seeing someone targeted by trolls is not easy. Alternatively, or perhaps in combination with that, players are being subjected to conspiracy theories online around the safety of the vaccine – through player WhatsApp groups, Telegram groups and Signal chats that are rife with “stories” of debilitating damage done to previously healthy athletes. These include messages posted by Matt Le Tissier, the former Southampton player, which include the untrue claim that the vaccine has claimed the lives of over 12,000 people.

The effect of players not publicly backing the vaccine could have damaging long term health consequences, with younger people among some of the least vaccinated demographics. To many, footballers are seen as a “credible messengers”, so their reluctance to trust the vaccine may impact uptake. Not all have been reluctant. Indeed, some have risked online targeting by antivaxxers to champion the vaccine. So when players such as Ben Chilwell do come forward, they should be rightly applauded.

Health authorities should urgently work with player representatives, including the English Football League, the PFA and the Premier League to challenge the views prevalent in these closed groups, and educate players so that can make better informed choices about the vaccine. Players need to realise how their inaction will empower the conspiracy theorists, and lead to younger people making uninformed choices about their own health.

But we should go further than merely factchecking and debunking theories for the players. We should explain to them how disinformation works – how it’s amplified and used by malign actors for both financial gain, criminal enterprise, or even pushed by hostile state actors to sow division in society. Sportspeople need to understand the “why”, as well as the “how”. Perhaps then more will be willing to speak out publicly against conspiracy theories that will, in the long term, cause enormous harm to public health.

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