• Angad Chowdhry

Vaccine Passports: The Key to Greater Mobility or Another Building Block in the Anti-Vaxx Movement?

Updated: Jun 7, 2021

Image from Unsplash by Lukas

Last year, the pandemic brought air travel to a grinding halt. With air travel down by 60% and looming uncertainty - many were separated from their loved ones.

Grandparents were unable to hug their grandchildren a few states away. Families celebrated weddings on Zoom. Couples stranded oceans apart found new ways to stay connected.

Vaccines presented a glimmer of hope which was quickly interrupted by a deadly second wave in many countries. Governments clambered to close borders again, set up new quarantine rules, and declare lockdowns. Such swift measures have made international travel even more uncertain as loved ones remain desperate to reunite. Amping up vaccine delivery is one solution.

To date, more than 1.86 billion vaccine doses have been administered worldwide. Those vaccinated are keen to return to normalcy - socializing at pubs, family reunions, and traveling across borders. However, as governments navigate a second wave, they must protect those who are unvaccinated.

Countries like the United States and the United Kingdom are toying with the idea of adopting a ‘vaccine passport.’ The vaccine passport could allow easier travel across borders and access to public facilities.

But vaccine passports have been met with mixed reactions - especially from anti-vaxxers. In New York, the Excelsior Pass provides digital proof of COVID-19 vaccination or negative test results. In Florida, a senator issued an executive order prohibiting businesses from requiring proof of vaccination. Japan is launching a vaccine passport to revive international travel.

Quilt.AI took a deeper dive into the discourse around vaccine passports in the U.K and U.S. to understand - what are narratives for and against them? How loud is each narrative? What is the interest in vaccine passports? We analyzed 18,530 searches and ran 275 Twitter posts through our Cultural AI tool to read semiotics. This is what we found.

1. Vaccine passport receive increased interest and scrutiny

In the last year, the UK and US saw an exponential increase in searches related to vaccine passports. Between the two countries, the U.S. has a majority (56%) of searches. However, the U.K. saw the most rapid growth in searches at 1613% compared to the U.S. at 1064%.

Searches for “vaccine passport” in the UK grew by 20,903%, followed by “digital vaccine passport” by 1000%. As summer draws closer, the easing of lockdown and rapid vaccine delivery have led people to resume planning holidays and travels. This is reflected in searches as the keyword “vaccine passport eu'' increased by 1528%. In the U.K, people are also more likely to have family and friends in E.U. compared to the U.S.

In the U.S, people are interchanging search keywords “passport vaccines” and “passport vaccinations” which both grew at 7690%. Another term used is “digital vaccine passport” which saw a 3388% growth. Similar to the U.K., there was interest in vaccine passports for the EU but at a lower volume. The keyword “vaccine passport eu” grew by 375% in the last year.

Our findings also show the variation in the months people are searching for “vaccine passport.” For example, in the U.S. and U.K, searches for ‘vaccine passport’ spiked between September to November when the first milestone for a 90% efficacy vaccine was published. Since then, searches in the U.S. have declined in comparison to the U.K. This may be because people are more likely to travel domestically in the U.S. versus internationally.

Our Cultural AI tool also found that, on Twitter, the most commonly discussed phrases used about vaccine passports were “use across borders” and “immunity passport.”

2. A breach of liberty or an opportunity to protect others?

As news of vaccine passports emerged, people flooded social media with their stance. People posted for and against vaccine passports while others placed conditions such as only using them for international travel. Some people stated they supported getting the vaccine but not passports. They expressed fear of being monitored and a breach of privacy during daily tasks. We found that people used pro and anti-vaxxer arguments to express disapproval, concern,

or support for vaccine passports.

The vaccine passport is a no-no

Like anti-vaxxers tactics, those opposed to vaccine passports use arguments that imbibe fear through conspiracy theories and play the victim. Our Cultural AI tool found that fear was one of the top emotions depicted in the Tweets. We segmented audiences based on our findings:

  • Do not violate my rights: Anti-vaxxers are building off the concerns around vaccine passports. For example, they argue that mandating these passports will force people to get the vaccine which is a breach of people’s liberty. In these posts, there are references to the vaccine as “experimental,” casting doubt on its efficacy and outrage that the government would require it.

  • Do not discriminate against me: Connected to the argument that frames anti-vaxxers as victims, there is a narrative that the passports will increase inequality. People who refuse the passport describe potentially having less access to public places. This is reflected in search terms such as “discriminate against me,” “less than those with passports” “disadvantages” and “persecuted.” This segment also refers to historical genocide using terms like #MedicalApartheid “Nazi government,” “tracker like the Star of David” and “stamp the mark,” emphasizing the “forcible” nature of any vaccine and public health-related scenario.

  • Big Brother is Watching Me!: Vaccine passports continue to drive anti-vaxxers conspiracy theories about the government and big Pharma. In this case, people believe that vaccine passports are another way for the government and big Pharma to collect and monitor people’s private data.

  • I don’t need a vaccine passport!: Our analysis also found that people use denial to argue against vaccine passports. For example, some people claim that they do not follow any COVID-19 protocols (e.g., mask-wearing) and have not gotten COVID-19. Others claimed that they do not know anyone who died from COVID-19, so it was not a dangerous disease. Therefore, there was no reason for them to get the vaccine or a passport.

Other Tweets shared links to anti-vaccine passport petitions. Some also argued that since vaccine passports have never been used for other diseases in history (e.g., Spanish flu, malaria), COVID-19 should not be an exception.

Protect ourselves and others

There are multiple counter-narratives to vaccine passports. However, supporting online narratives is fewer in number.

  • I want the old normal: This segment views vaccine passports as a tool to resume a normal life. It provides opportunities to travel, visit family and friends, and go to restaurants, gyms, etc. Many posts celebrated the ability to travel after a year of lockdown. Of 275 Tweets we studied, 37% of them referred to themes of freedom such as travel and movement.

  • History is repeating itself: A quarter of Twitter posts use the argument that vaccine passports are not a new phenomenon. They provide examples of their travel documents with details about yellow fever vaccines or shots received as a child. This segment uses images of their vaccine records to counter any arguments that this is specific to COVID-19.

  • Protect yourself and others: Supportive online discourse for vaccine passports most often mentions protecting oneself and others. Terms such as “just,” “fair,” “save lives” are frequently used for this heroic framing. Those who disagreed were painted as selfish and unwilling to adapt for the greater good.

In some cases, there was a debate on whether various institutions could mandate a vaccine passport. Those in favor supported private companies as having a right to protect their staff and customers. In some cases, people also encourage others to adapt to the new changes and accept that a vaccine passport may be the ‘new normal.'

3. A prominent and growing voice against vaccine passports

Half of the Twitter posts we studied were against vaccine passports. Even within this segment, the majority are conspiracy theories against the government and big pharma. The Internet provides them with an anonymous and scaled-up platform to amplify their arguments. It is alarming that they have established a dominant voice in the debate and rapidly receive likes, shares, and retweets. Engagement from those who support vaccine passports gives their posts more boost and sparks wider discourse.

Almost a quarter of the Twitter posts related to supporting vaccine passports. This includes the possibility of traveling again, sharing old vaccine records, or eagerness to receive the vaccine and passport.

About 23% had general information about vaccine passports. The information is linked to media articles, survey results of people’s opinions, and WHO and the EU resources.

Vaccine passport opposition is also filled with petitions. In the UK, more than a quarter-million people have signed the petition. In Australia and Canada, people use Twitter to spread the petition rapidly and garner greater engagement.

Adapt and Stay on Guard

Despite this pushback, how would vaccine passports really fare if it rolls out? Israel has become a real-life example of a potential post-COVID world. The green pass has helped reopen Israel’s economy, but it comes with consequences. In a recent Holocaust Memorial event, people expressed outrage that those without a green pass could not attend. Stories of employees filing civil rights lawsuits against employers for mandating the green pass reflect arguments used by anti-vaccine passports.

As countries ponder the adoption of a digital vaccine passport, it is increasingly important to look at countries like Israel while listening to discourse on social media. Those against vaccine passports are strategically building off anti-vaxxer sentiments. Governments and organizations can halt the spread of misinformation by starting with discourse against vaccine passports and anti-vaxxers. Search engines are also a starting point to redirect people to correct information.

Regardless of adopting the vaccine passport, evidence shows that COVID-19 is here to stay. Vaccines may not stop COVID-19 altogether. Taking precautions must continue at every stage.

Write to [email protected] to learn more about our work.

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