Misinformation on social media fuels hesitation over COVID-19 vaccine, researchers say

The deadly delta variant continues to spread across the United States, and even with an overall decline in COVID-19 cases, vacation travel could result in a new wave of coronavirus. To prevent this and end this pandemic, health experts are begging virtually everyone to get vaccinated.

Still, vaccination rates, especially in Texas, “need a very marked improvement,” said Dr Mary Healy, physician and assistant professor at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and a member of the COVID-19 task force at Houston. the Texas Medical Association.

When looking at vaccination rates in the states, Texas is “pretty close to the bottom,” she said. “With all the resources we have, we shouldn’t be in this situation.”

Millions of Texans are still not fully immunized. The problem is not the lack of vaccines. Rather, it’s largely an abundance of misinformation, especially on social media, that keeps people away from getting the vaccine, public health researchers say.

“Reluctance to the vaccine does a lot of damage,” Healy said. “This translates into illnesses and hospitalizations. This results in death.

The modern age of disinformation

Misinformation-fueled vaccine hesitation is a centuries-old problem, but the advent of the internet and social media has intensified its intensity.

Misinformation is now “worse because it travels faster, and there’s more of it because it’s basically free or cheap to create,” said Claire Wardle, a communications expert who co-founded the organization at First Draft nonprofit, which aims to study and combat the spread of disinformation.

Rumors of the frightening side effects of a vaccine used to circulate in a local village. Now rumors can spread across the country overnight. Public health experts are struggling to keep up.

“The problem is, if I am the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention]I need to be constantly listening to people’s questions and concerns, ”Wardle said. “It’s this ongoing battle.”

Many misconceptions are spread by strong online communities that have good intentions, despite the damage they cause.

But there are also “basically crooks, who are deliberately trying to manipulate people,” Wardle said. Fake news websites craft completely bogus headlines that tap into emotion, fear and anger over COVID-19 vaccines, she said.

“They are desperate to get you to their website,” she said. Each sight makes their platform more palatable to advertisers, and “they can make more money.”

Another problem is that when people search for information online from credible institutions like the CDC, it is “probably a 67-page PDF,” Wardle said. Meanwhile, the fake news people “send to Instagram is a fun and colorful meme that looks really certain and tells you something very clear.”

One of many infographics produced by the Texas Medical Association, for use on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, to correct common misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines.  This infographic refutes the common misconception that vaccines will give you the virus, leading to positive COVID-19 test results.
One of many infographics produced by the Texas Medical Association, for use on social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, to correct common misconceptions about COVID-19 vaccines. This infographic refutes the common misconception that vaccines will give you the virus, leading to positive COVID-19 test results.

To keep pace, the Texas Medical Association (TMA) is running a more modern social media campaign to tackle vaccine misinformation – one with fact sheets, colorful infographics, and vibrant videos – called Vaccines Defend What Matters. Content is widely available in English and Spanish.

One size may not fit all

While nifty social media campaigns like TMA’s are helpful, they’re probably not enough, the researchers say.

“There are some very high risk groups for whom generic information may not be as useful,” says Dr. Arleen Brown, physician and professor of medicine at UCLA. Brown and his research team interviewed residents of communities of color in Los Angeles County.

Interviews were conducted in focus groups led by Savanna Carson, a public health researcher at UCLA and lead author of the study.

The study had 70 participants, all from ethnic or racial minorities at high risk of COVID-19 morbidity and mortality. These increased risks were due to a combination of race / ethnicity, socioeconomic status and age of participants.

The researchers conducted the focus groups for a few months in late 2020 and early 2021. The results were published this fall in the JAMA Network Open.

Researchers found a wide range of reasons that led many participants to wonder if they would get the jab. It ranged from a desire for autonomy to fear that politicization would jeopardize vaccine trials.

But many of the reservations were distinctive of a participant’s racial identity. For example, many were concerned that COVID-19 vaccines would primarily be tested on healthy white people. They feared that the vaccine’s effectiveness might not be proven for other populations. This is reasonable, as racial minorities have historically been under-represented in clinical trials.

Dr. Arleen Brown is a physician and public health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Dr. Arleen Brown is a physician and public health researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This is not the case for the COVID-19 vaccine trials, which reflected the diversity of the country. However, this reservation remains. “When we talk to people about the vaccine, telling them ‘Someone like you was pictured in the trials’ can make a big difference,” Brown said.

There are barriers specific to low-income communities that hinder accessibility to vaccines. On the one hand, those who live paycheck to paycheque cannot afford to miss several days of work if the side effects of the vaccine prove to be overwhelming. Other issues: The ability to obtain transport to a vaccination site or to have the technology to register for vaccination.

The vaccine, Carson said, “isn’t necessarily always free, even though we think of it as free.”

There is also unequal access to information and to quality health care. Conversations with health care providers are the best way to dispel misconceptions. But not everyone has “seen a doctor in recent years to know who to talk to,” Carson said.

Brown and Carson are both part of the Community Engagement Alliance, or CEAL, a network operated by the National Institutes of Health. The network has teams across the country, including one in Dallas, engaging with communities of color, the communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

CEAL networks “are really trying to dispel myths and misinformation about COVID and COVID vaccines to really improve diverse community participation, not only in vaccine trials but also in the discussion around COVID and vaccinations,” said Brown.

The goal, she said, is “to actually improve uptake of the vaccine by vulnerable groups and credible information about the vaccine.”

“There has to be a process of active engagement,” Carson said, stressing that those who engage with people hesitant to vaccinate should have empathy and a willingness to listen. You “will never understand the concerns of the community unless you ask questions about them and involve the community in their decision-making and potential barriers to immunization,” she said.

Jordan Wilkerson is a science writer with a PhD. in chemistry from Harvard University. He is a former American Association for the Advancement of Science Fellow at The morning news from Dallas.

FILE - A woman receives an injection of her second dose of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at a Dallas County Health and Human Services vaccination site in Dallas on Thursday, August 26, 2021. Health officials say that they have more evidence that vaccinations may offer better protection against COVID-19 than natural immunity against a previous infection.  A new study published on Friday, October 29, found that unvaccinated people who had been infected months earlier were 5 times more likely to contract COVID months than fully vaccinated people who had not had a previous infection.  (AP Photo / LM Otero, file)
Parkland Hospital pharmacist Henna Choi prepares a Pfizer vaccine at a vaccination clinic hosted by Parkland Hospital in Glenn Heights at Glenn Heights Senior Center on Saturday, September 11, 2021. Glenn Heights is only vaccinated 20% based on county data.

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