False information about the COVID-19 vaccine has slowed our progress toward achieving herd immunity and put extreme stress on personal relationships. Unpacking this misinformation is critical to fighting the virus.
Written by: Courtney Byrnes
In the age of social media, we are flooded with information — some good, some bad — and in this fast-paced environment, we don’t always take the time to slow down and fact-check what we are reading.
This allows misinformation and disinformation to spread like wildfire, and suddenly we get to where we are today. People are refusing to take a life-saving vaccine because they want to do their own research — research which includes conspiratorial Facebook posts about microchips, Bill Gates, 5G satellites and horse dewormer medication.
Understanding that this is a frightening time for many people is important. Most of us have never lived through a pandemic requiring us to make major changes in our lives, desperately following the groundbreaking scientific developments of creating a new vaccine. But we must take a step back, look at where we are getting our information and choose to follow the science.
First, let’s define a few things. The difference between misinformation and disinformation comes down to intent, according to Dictionary.com. Both terms describe the spread of false information, but where misinformation is any kind of false information, disinformation is deliberately spreading false information. Both types of false information have infected the public and private spheres in reaction to the COVID-19 vaccine.
We must distinguish between those who are vaccine-hesitant and those who are anti-vax. Vaccine hesitancy may be due to distrust of the medical community following years of institutional racism, or simply wanting to know more about the vaccine and the production before deciding to get vaccinated. Anti-vaxxers refuse to get vaccinated and often disregard any scientific information backing vaccines.
“I have two friends who I would say are hesitant … and then I have an uncle who is refusing to get the vaccine,” senior journalism major Tony Pesta said. “They all have varying reasons for it.”
Both groups, like all of us, are susceptible to mis- and disinformation and can contribute to spreading it further, wittingly or unwittingly. If people in your life fall into one of these groups, you likely know how frustrating it can be to hear the impact that false information can have on them.
Pesta shared conversations he has had with his friends who are hesitant to receive the vaccine because of misinformation surrounding breakthrough cases, or the belief that the vaccine is unnecessary if you are young and healthy. However, even after explaining that breakthrough cases are rare and vaccines help limit the spread, his friends are still reluctant to get vaccinated.
I would say it’s putting a strain on relationships
At his cousin’s graduation party, an argument arose between Pesta’s uncle and grandma (the latter of whom is at high-risk) after the vaccinated family members tried to stay separate from the unvaccinated.
“We tried to stay separated from everyone else because they’re not vaccinated and that caused a mini argument between him and my grandma. It was very awkward and uncomfortable — so yeah I would say it’s putting a strain on relationships,” Pesta said.
In an Instagram story questionnaire asking “How has vaccine misinformation affected the relationships in your life?” Reem Abumeri answered: “It has changed who I choose to respect and hang out with.”
Earlier this year, someone close to me tried to warn me against getting the COVID-19 vaccine by explaining a false post they saw about a microchip in the vaccine that — “and I know this next part sounds crazy,” they said — is connected to the new 5G satellites to control us.
Hearing the concern in their voice, the recognition that it seemed illogical, yet still believing this theory anyway left me feeling hopeless, that they had fallen too far down the rabbit hole of false information.
These stories and more are the personal impact of misinformation.
What can be done to combat this? Social media is not going away and neither is the misinformation that lives on these sites so we need to be smarter about the way we use them. The best way to do this is by developing media literacy.
Mediawise is a project created by the Poynter Institute to “teach people digital media literacy and fact-checking skills to spot misinformation and disinformation.” They offer online training courses and fact-checking of viral stories.
So, as you work on developing your media literacy skills, let’s start out by debunking some viral myths about the COVID-19 vaccine.
The vaccine is ineffective.
All three approved COVID vaccines are over 90% effective in reducing the risk of getting sick. No vaccine is 100% effective in stopping all spread; the reason some diseases are eradicated today are thanks to vaccines AND herd immunity. Cases among the vaccinated are rare and are less likely to contribute to the spread.
The vaccine is only for those at high-risk.
There are two pathways to herd immunity: vaccine or infection. Vaccines help slow the spread for everyone, so the more shots in arms, the quicker we can reach herd immunity. Even if you have had the virus, there is no telling how long this natural immunity lasts so it is best to get the vaccine and booster shots when available. Even if you are not high-risk, you could still spread the virus if you get sick.
The vaccine is experimental.
The vaccines did have a quick turnaround — thanks to decades of scientific developments on mRNA technology. Since the late 1980s, scientists have been working on the creation of mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna. Developments that led to the vaccines we see today go all the way back to the discovery of mRNA in the 1960s.
The vaccine contains a microchip.
Experts all agree that this is not possible. The technology to create (1) a microchip small enough to fit inside a needle and (2) an accompanying power source able to transmit a signal through muscle, fat and skin simply does not exist. If you are worried about government tracking, look no further than your smartphone and credit card.
Ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine can be used to treat or prevent the virus.
Neither medication is FDA approved or authorized for treating COVID-19, whereas the Pfizer vaccine is FDA approved, andModerna and J&J are authorized by the FDA for emergency use, on the pathway to standard FDA approval. Taking any medication other than for its main purpose and prescribed amount is very dangerous.
The virus is a hoax to deploy 5G satellite towers that track your location through the vaccine.
This conspiracy theory has been proven false and is insensitive to the approximately five million people who have died worldwide from COVID-19 and their families.