Battling Vaccine Misinformation: How Social Media Will Play a Crucial Role in Vaccine Rollout
As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, President Joe Biden has prioritized his plan to administer Covid-19 vaccines to the American people.
As the Covid-19 pandemic rages on, President Joe Biden has prioritized his plan to administer Covid-19 vaccines to the American people. After presenting his $1.9 trillion coronavirus economic relief package, he committed to vaccinating 100 million people in his first 100 days of office. On February 11, the federal government will send one million vaccine doses to roughly 6,500 retail pharmacies on Feb. 11 and will eventually deliver vaccines to up to 40,000 drugstores and grocery stores. Yet as health officials attempt to implement widespread vaccination, one of their main concerns will be the wave of false information regarding the vaccines that is causing widespread vaccine hesitancy. As much of this false information is spread on social media, media companies must assume a newly assertive role in regulating the spread of information.
If enough of the population is vaccinated, the virus is unable to infect enough people to remain prevalent—this is known as herd immunity. The number of people who need to be vaccinated is known as the critical vaccination level. Research from the University of Connecticut has estimated that this number is roughly 70 percent for Covid-19. According to Pew Research Center, 60 percent of Americans say they would definitely or probably get a vaccine for the coronavirus, while 39 percent say they definitely or probably would not get a coronavirus vaccine. Roughly half of that 39 percentage is “pretty certain” more information will not change their mind. Changing the minds of at least the other half of those unwilling to get the vaccine is essential if the United States is to reach that 70 percent vaccination level for herd immunity, and social media companies will play an important role in that process.
Social media is the main source of misinformation about the vaccine. Politicians, influencers, and anti-vaccine social groups all impact people’s thoughts on the subject. Proliferating misinformation can have lethal consequences in the context of the global pandemic, and across sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, people with authority or influence are spreading false information. For example, Emerald Robinson, a U.S. journalist who worked as one of former President Trump’s White House correspondents for the conservative Newsmax media organization, posted on Twitter last week: “Reminder: The Pfizer vaccine uses mRNA technology which has never been tested or approved before. It tampers with your DNA. 75 percent of vaccine trial volunteers have experienced side effects. Beware.” This is only one example of the baseless claims circulating. There’s no medical knowledge that supports it—Covid-19 mRNA does not change or alter your DNA in any way. The mRNA from a Covid-19 vaccine never enters the nucleus of the cell, which is where the DNA is kept, meaning that mRNA cannot affect or interact with DNA. Instead, Covid-19 mRNA vaccines work with the body’s natural defenses to safely develop immunity to disease. Yet increasing numbers of uneducated social media accounts with large followings are spreading false information—that Covid-19 vaccines contain mercury, anti-freeze, animal blood, or even formaldehyde, for instance—thereby creating an “infodemic.”
Covid-19 vaccines may be new, but these kinds of concerns about vaccines go back for a long time. Over the past few years, the anti-vaccination movement has grown more prominent. This was most prevalent with less common contagious diseases like measles, where parents had concerns that the vaccine had a connection to autism. These “anti-vaxxer” groups have gained numbers and influence over the years and have grown increasingly active as new Covid-19 vaccines have been approved. Anti-vaxxer influencers and individuals gain a dangerous platform through social media, as they have the capability of spreading conspiracy theories and lies freely to thousands (if not millions) at a time when false information is deadly.
At a minimum, social media sites should put caution notices on posts that contain misinformation, but media companies can (and should) do more. Posts that contain false information should be taken down, and accounts with constant offenses should be suspended or banned. Media sites should prioritize the spread of accurate information by highlighting the voices of health experts. This could be achieved by boosting health officials in their algorithms or creating a Covid-19 information tab to make their posts more easily accessible. Clear access to this information won’t stop the die-hard anti-vaxxers from distrusting the vaccine, but it may sway those who find themselves in the middle—and those are the people we need to convince in order to eventually achieve herd immunity.
The right to free speech on social media is one thing, but when it comes in the way of national safety (whether the threat is a violent mob or a virus), misinformation cannot be tolerated. A few weeks ago, Liza Strong ’24 wrote an article entitled “Social Media: Balancing Free Speech and Dangerous Ideas.” She asserted that social media needed to limit free speech to prevent dangerous events like the Capitol riots. The same is true regarding the Covid-19 vaccine—the consequences of allowing misinformation to spread are simply too severe. When misinformation does threaten national security, media companies must assume that burden of preserving truth.