Devon Greyson is Assistant Professor of Health Communication at the University of Massachusetts Amherst
Last spring, the World Health Organization declared an “infodemic” was accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic. An onslaught of harmful, inaccurate information now pollutes our information ecosystem, causing confusion, stoking division in our communities, and undermining public health messaging. With vaccination our best hope at a return to normal life, misinformation (unintentional inaccuracies) and disinformation (deliberately false or misleading content) threaten our ability to achieve sufficiently high levels of vaccine acceptance to end the current viral pandemic.
Over the past year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen misinformation spread by mass and social media as well as word-of mouth on topics ranging from alleged preventions and cures to outright conspiracy theories about the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and the vaccines developed to stop its spread, we have seen misinformation spread with unprecedented speed. Some of this has been relatively innocuous, while other falsehoods have promoted risky health behaviours or stoked racism. We have also seen disinformation spread by those who wanted to make profit from the misfortune of others, either by peddling ineffective products or by gaining personal fame. Some of this misleads people about the safety and effectiveness of the new COVID-19 vaccines, as well as the motivations of those responsible for vaccination campaigns.
There are legitimate reasons people might feel hesitant, have doubts and concerns, or questions about new vaccines. No one likes to get shots, and some are fearful of needles. Not everyone in Canada has a trusted healthcare provider or medical librarian who can take the time to address their questions about COVID-19 vaccination. Additionally, some individuals and communities have been mistreated by government and medical authorities, who must act in trustworthy ways and make reparations to earn back that trust.
The benefits of getting vaccinated with either COVID-19 vaccine far outweigh the risks of adverse effects, and in a less polluted information ecosystem, doubts and concerns would be more easily allayed. The public would be able to identify and turn to trusted sources who would keep them updated with the latest scientific information. The encouraging news about the newly approved COVID-19 vaccines in Canada is that they have cleared the usual safety tests for vaccines quickly and shown even better effectiveness than expected.
However, misinformation and disinformation continue to circulate, potentially scaring people away from vaccination. Common tactics of COVID-19 vaccine disinformation include scaremongering and misrepresenting the facts, often in ways that appeal to our emotions and underlying values. For example, false claims about mRNA vaccines often feature concocted science to prey on fears about futuristic technology creating a gene-edited dystopian society. In reality, mRNA vaccines do not change your DNA, they just teach your cells to temporarily make the spike that is found on the outside of the SARS-COV-2 virus so your body can practice attacking it. Other disinformation taps into pre-existing conspiracy theories, assigning nefarious motives to certain ethnic groups (e.g., Jews, Chinese) or public figures (e.g., Bill Gates, George Soros). To further complicate matters, falsehoods that begin as disinformation, can be spread further as misinformation by people who do not know they are false.
How can we detect, resist, and interrupt misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines? We must be vigilant at multiple levels to clean up our health information ecosystem. Individuals, public health information and service providers, and media platforms and regulators all have a role to play in the short- and long-term efforts against mis- and disinformation.
As individuals, we assess information in two main ways: first, does the information make sense to us; and second, is the source of the information one we trust? Those promoting anti-vaccine disinformation know this and are working hard to manufacture doubt about the safety of vaccines and the trustworthiness of those promoting vaccination, from pharmaceutical companies to public health nurses. When we see or hear new information about COVID-19 vaccines, it is our responsibility to fact-check it before passing it along. For example, a recent viral claim that a nurse in the United States died after receiving COVID-19 vaccination turned out to have been a conflation of a nurse who fainted on television and an unrelated death certificate for a woman in a different state. An online search of the topic and “fact check” brings up many articles setting the record straight. In addition to verifying specific questionable claims, we can now play online games, including one specifically about COVID-19 disinformation, to learn about strategies used by disinformation campaigners, potentially strengthening our ability to detect and resist deliberately misleading claims.
However, the whole responsibility cannot rest on individuals. Public health information and service providers must make it easier for laypeople to find accurate information and check rumors for truth. Some organizations have held community events where scientists and health professionals will answer public questions about COVID-19, which can help boost confidence. Some provincial and national organizations have been working hard to provide up-to-date FAQs about COVID-19 vaccines, but work remains to build awareness of these among the general public, and to translation and adapt materials to multilingual and multicultural formats. Part of the work to make accurate information accessible to all Canadians also includes building trust with communities that have been socially marginalized and disrespected, doing a better job of partnering with leaders of diverse communities in health promotion efforts, and ensuring that our medical, scientific, and public health workforces reflect the entirety of the population.
However, without action to clean up media platforms and regulate the vectors of misinformation and disinformation, individuals and public health professionals will always be playing catch-up. Therefore, Canada should take a leadership role among the many countries internationally who are working toward greater regulation of digital media platforms. Leaving decisions about content moderation and platform transparency to companies such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter has enabled the rapid spread of disinformation in ways that evade traditional media regulatory structures. Compelling social media and search engines to disadvantage and deplatform misleading and hateful content, and to help accurate scientific information “rise to the top” when people are seeking health information or advice, will support health promotion efforts far beyond the current pandemic.
Recognizing that COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy may be stoked by misinformation, disinformation, and lack of trust is key to addressing it in ways that successfully build confidence in the vaccines that are our best hope at a return to normal life. Individuals, public health promoters, and government regulators all have a role to play in cleaning up our polluted health information ecosystem, in order to ensure a healthier future.