The most viewed link on Facebook during the first quarter of 2021 was a news story suggesting that a COVID-19 vaccine may have been involved in a doctor’s death, quickly reaching 54 million people on the social media platform. Although the piece was factually true—it subtly stated that there was no proven link between the shot and the doctor’s death—the story led many readers to believe vaccines are unsafe.
The article, posted and shared by accounts that regularly raise doubts about vaccines, is an example of “misinformation” (false, inaccurate, or confusing information that does not intend to mislead). Combined with its more toxic counterpart, “disinformation” (false information deliberately created and disseminated with malicious intent), this “infodemic” has fueled a deadly public health crisis and helped create a pandemic of the unvaccinated.
“This is harming people, communities, families, and individuals,” said Wanda Montalvo, PhD, RN, NACHC senior fellow and team lead for public health integration. “People are being victimized by disinformation and misinformation and paying a heavy toll when they decide not to get vaccinated—sometimes it costs them their lives.”
“People are being victimized by disinformation and misinformation and paying a heavy toll when they decide not to get vaccinated—sometimes it costs them their lives.”
Wanda Montalvo, PhD, RN, NACHC Senior Fellow
Recognizing (and debunking) COVID-19 misinformation and disinformation
In a recent NACHC-sponsored webinar, “Pushing Back on the Digital Spread of COVID-19”, Dr. Joe Smyser, CEO of the Public Good Projects (PGP), explained that while the anti-vaccine movement has been around for a long time, it has completely transformed during the pandemic. “Pre-pandemic, anti-vaccine campaigns mainly organized around personalities,” said Smyser.” Now most of the anti-vaccine movement centers around real-world events. It’s a better-organized and well-funded global movement.”
The sheer volume of communications about vaccines has skyrocketed. In 2019, PGP found approximately 5,400 conversations about vaccines online per day, most of which were negative. Now, they are tracking more than 24,000 each day, almost all of which are adamantly opposed to vaccines. “This is our new normal,” said Smyser. “We need to learn more about what’s going on and how to adapt to it.”
So, what are the most common forms of misinformation and disinformation? And what makes them so effective?
Most misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19 focuses on vaccine development, safely, and effectiveness. COVID-19 denialism also often plays a role. Experts explain that this kind of content establishes powerful emotional and psychological responses, causing even people who believe in science to question public health’s consensus about the ability of the vaccines to stop the spread of coronavirus. The voices spreading misinformation and disinformation are often adept at building connections, gaining trust, and sowing doubt.
Visit the Public Health Communications Collaborative’s Misinformation Alerts for information on trending issues.
How misinformation and disinformation impact vaccination rates
The inadvertent spread of erroneous information and the deliberate propagation of false or misleading information has had a devastating impact. Misinformation and disinformation have contributed to reduced trust in medical professionals and public health responders, increased belief in fake medical cures, politicized public health efforts aimed at reducing transmission of coronavirus, and increased loss of life.
Although there is some research quantifying a causality between non-vaccination and misinformation and disinformation, it’s important to remember that other factors are often at work in the choice not to get vaccinated. These include lack of access to care, preexisting distrust of the medical system, and fears about taking a novel treatment. Even so, a recent experimental study on misinformation showed it caused a 6% decrease in the intent to get vaccinated—possibly accounting for 5% to 30% of non-vaccinated people in the United States. Anecdotally, NACHC has heard from many health centers that patients reluctant to get vaccinated often cite misinformation from social media.
The infodemic has also led to harassment of, and violence against, health professionals, public health workers, airline staff, and other frontline workers tasked with communicating and enforcing public health measures such as wearing masks.
Stopping the infodemic’s spread
With about one-third of adults in the U.S. still completely unvaccinated and new cases of COVID-19 rapidly on the rise due to the Omicron variant, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has called for a war against “health misinformation.” Murthy released an urgent advisory about the infodemic, describing it as a severe threat prolonging the pandemic and putting “lives at risk.”
UNICEF, PGP, and the Yale Institute for Global Health have partnered to create a COVID-19 misinformation guide to help public health professionals combat the infodemic. This guide is designed to help organizations develop strategies and action plans to counter vaccine misinformation and build demand for vaccinations.
While Murthy called on all Americans to do their part to fight the infodemic, public health responders and Community Health Centers play a special role. Montalvo explains, “Health centers are a trusted voice with strong relationships in the community. We need to inoculate our patients against these viral messages. When we provide accurate information, it resonates and helps vaccination strategies work.”
Public Health Communications Collaborative: This website tracks misinformation and offers recommended responses through its “Misinformation Alerts.”
Stronger.org: A project of the Public Good Projects, it seeks to stop the spread of misinformation by providing facts to counter trending misinformation. Visit website.