Coronavirus (1200) Inoculating against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation (2)

30 March, 2021

Dear Neil and all,

Thanks for the link to this article on ‘Inoculating against Covid-19 vaccine misinformation’.

It is completely understandable that many efforts to debunk Covid vaccine myths can add to the problem (e.g. vaccine is Bill Gates controlling the world, Covid is all a hoax, 5G causes Covid, Vaccine is 666 work of the devil, vaccine implants tracking devices, all a conspiracy by Big Pharma companies, vaccine is poison or gives people AIDS - all of which I have heard in communities around Cape Town where I live). Where there is intentional spreading of disinformation / malinformation, the aim is usually not to persuade people of the specific falsehood, but to generate confusion and controversy that undermines belief in evidence-based information. If the public health messaging just puts a ‘not’ in each sentence (The vaccine isn’t Gates controlling us; it is not poison; 5G doesn’t cause COVID) what people hear is more chatter about Gates, 5G, poison etc - that there is a debatte about this, and they don’t know who to believe.

Often debunking specific claims just doesn’t understand the underlying concern. You do not stop worries about 5G telecommunications by running a physics lecture on non-ionizing radiation. What actually is being expressed is lack of trust in government, corporations, big tech etc. Emotions are more powerful than facts. Building trust is a long-term issue, and lack of trust is often justified: if people distrust government, it’s not the people’s fault. Transparency, consistency, responding respectfully to public and individual concerns are needed.

‘Pre-bunking’ can be useful and there are several efforts in this area (download the ‘Cranky Uncle’ app and the BadNews online game is fun, see www.getbadnews.com). However, it largely focuses on individuals, and is better to do before misinformation spreads (less relevant when an infodemic is raging), and the people likely to do the process are probably not the ones most at risk of falling for misinformation. Perhaps this sort of pre-bunking would be better long-term built into school & university courses on media literacy.

Luckily in many countries myths and hoaxes have less traction than much of the focus of infodemiology would suggest. I’m on the ‘Risk Communication and Community Engagement’ team in South Africa, and surveys show that about 45% of the adult population would take the Covid vaccine today if it was available, 12% are completely hostile, and about 40% are open to persuasion (mildly pro-, anti- or neutral). This group is often referred to as the ’moveable middle’ which should be the focus of public health information. Their concerns are usually ‘reasonable’ ones, such as ‘does it work?’ (efficacy), ‘is it safe?’, side effects, ‘how was it developed so fast?’ etc. The task is to make good quality information more easily accessible than misinformation, to make a better information offer and to drown out misinformation (as the WHO says).

So, the suggestion is to target debunking of myths very tightly (back to the specific WhatsApp group, Twitter stream, Facebook page where the hoax came up to not spread it more generally), and widely broadcast all positive information on the benefits of the vaccine while being as open and transparent as possible.

Best wishes,

Peter

HIFA profile: Peter Benjamin is SA director of HealthEnabled, South Africa. Professional interests: Digital health, mHealth, Empowerment through health information. Email address: peter AT healthenabled.org