“Memes Save Lives”: Stigma and the Production of Antivaccination Memes During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Stephanie Alice Baker, Michael Walsh

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract

Disinformation research is increasingly concerned with the hierarchies and conditions that enable the strategic production of false and misleading content online. During the COVID-19 pandemic, it was revealed that 12 influencers were responsible for a significant volume of antivaccine disinformation. This article examines how influencers use antivaccination memes for commercial and political gain. Drawing on a 12-month digital ethnography of three disinformation producers on Instagram and Telegram, we conceptualize their strategy of meme warfare in terms of the logics of spoiled identity, demonstrating how stigma is used to galvanize and recast the antivaccination movement around themes of persecution and moral superiority. Dispensing with the idea that content moderation has forced disinformation “underground,” we find that disinformation producers configure memes to adapt to specific platforms by directing mainstream audiences to less regulated platforms, personal newsletters, and sites. By examining the tactics and techniques disinformation producers use to spread antivaccination messaging online, we question the effectiveness of content moderation policies as a solution to regulate influencers whose visibility and status strategically straddle multiple sites in the broader information ecosystem.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-13
Number of pages13
JournalSocial Media + Society
VolumeJanuary-March
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jan 2024

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