Public health agencies and academic partners have created a vaccine misinformation field guide outlining how to respond to the misinformation and disinformation that are undermining uptake of the COVID-19 vaccines.
“The novel SARS-CoV-2 virus has triggered two parallel pandemics: a biological one, which has spread to every country in the world, and a social pandemic of misinformation — an infodemic — spreading across social networks,” the guide states.1 “Vaccines have been sucked into this vortex of confusing information, which ranges from the innocently misleading to the intentionally deceiving. Vaccine-critical messaging increased more than two-fold compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, with 4.5 billion views of content spreading vaccine misinformation in just the United States alone between March-July 2020.”
The guide was created by a collaboration that includes UNICEF and the Yale Institute for Global Health.
“[It includes] risk evaluation metrics for what to respond to and what not to respond to,” Saad Omer, PhD, MPH, director of Yale Institute said. “And it also talks about specific strategies for pre-bunking or ‘inoculating’ — no pun intended — against specific misinformation.”
According to the guide, misinformation is “false information that’s shared by people who don’t realize it is false and don’t mean any harm, including vaccine proponents.” This is in contrast to disinformation, which “is deliberately engineered and disseminated false information with malicious intent or to serve agendas.”
People can be surprisingly vulnerable to misinformation, especially in times of upheaval.
“[This is] due to a complex mix of cognitive, social, and algorithmic biases,” the guide states. “These include information overload and limited attention spans, various cognitive biases, the novelty of misinformation, trust, and algorithmic popularity.”
Another factor fueling misinformation includes lower trust in scientists and journalists. Conspiracies appear to help people reduce the complexity of reality and abate feelings of powerlessness and mistrust.
“People may be exposed to misinformation through media or voiced opinions and rumors, and more and more through online social networks, which fuel the infodemic,” the guide states. “By amplifying attention-grabbing information, social media algorithms may incentivize the circulation of misinformation and disinformation, allowing false information to spread faster and further than true information.”
The guide takes the reader through stages, with chapters on preparation, listening, understanding, and engagement.
“Be credible in terms of the information to not go beyond the data,” Omer said at a recent CDC forum on improving COVID-19 vaccinations. “Consider communicating vaccine as an aspiration, as an act. Leverage self-efficacy and social norms.”
Science, in a vacuum, has little effect unless deployed with cultural literacy, he added.
“You form the final message with the communities that you're engaging with,” Omer said. “The co-creation part comes in there.”
- Thomson A, Finnegan G. Vaccine misinformation management field guide: Guidance for addressing a global infodemic and fostering demand for immunization. United Nation’s Children’s Fund. December 2020. https://vaccinemisinformation.guide/