Edelman’s 2021 Trust barometer data revealed that trust in all news sources is at record lows with social media being one of the least trusted (35%).[i] A lack of trust in government, politics and elites has allowed misinformation to thrive on social media, fuelling distrust in the new COVID-19 vaccines and contributing to vaccine hesitancy. Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organisation had identified people’s reluctance to get routine vaccines, even when available, as one of the top ten threats to global health.[ii]
Much like the spread of a virus, how does misinformation thrive on social media platforms and how is this impacting our efforts to end the pandemic?
Social media platforms are relatively unregulated, and as we know, algorithms dictate the content we see.[iii] The type of content that features most frequently at the top of your newsfeeds will be determined by the accounts you interact with most, your watch history as well as what others, who are deemed to be like you, are watching. The problem arises when someone begins interacting with content that is spreading misinformation. The social media algorithm will continue to promote similar content, thus perpetuating the spread and belief of these false claims.[iv]
False claims around COVID-19 vaccines have prospered within these ‘echo chambers’ and the impact could potentially be catastrophic. Delays in uptake and refusals of the COVID-19 vaccination could prevent society from reaching the threshold necessary for herd immunity. This would allow for the continuation of COVID-19 community transmission, keeping the pandemic alive. The consequences do not just impact those who choose not to receive a vaccine. Vaccine hesitancy impacts the wider community, as has been seen with the resurgence of historic diseases, such as measles and polio.[v]
While research shows that many people maintain trust in scientific professionals, there are plenty that will instead put their trust in sensationalist, disinformation campaigns.i Social media, therefore, remains an important vehicle for influencing what people think, feel, and critically, do – in terms of their behaviour around vaccinations, to ensure continued uptake and momentum and our collective path out of lockdown.
So, how can we address the issue?
We can all take personal responsibility to practice good ‘information hygiene’. Nearly 40% of people practice poor information hygiene, for example, not engaging with multiple news sources, immersing themselves in news echo chambers, and not sharing unvetted information. Ensuring we follow these steps is a simple way for many of us to help tackle this problem.
Digital opinion leaders (such as physicians, policy makers and influential figures such as faith leaders) can also help by posting fact-based information and sharing their confidence in the vaccine. We’ve seen many healthcare providers using social media to debunk vaccine myths, including Dr Rose Marie Leslie whose TikTok video on her vaccination experience has reached over 970,000 views.[vi] A number of celebrities, such as Sir Ian McKellen and Dame Judi Dench, have also shared images of themselves receiving the vaccine and have encouraged their followers to have theirs when offered.[vii] In fact, these influential figures have a huge responsibility to practice good information hygiene as their accounts have a large reach and influence. They can be leveraged to both discredit false claims and encourage vaccine uptake, especially among ethnic minority communities where vaccine hesitancy is high.
Moreover, as businesses are currently the only trusted institution according to the Trust Barometer, and the only one seen as both competent and ethical, they too have an important role in addressing vaccine hesitancy on social media.i Recent research into this issue calls for the need for co-ordinated, collaborative action to remove anti-vaccination content from social media platforms. On December 3rd, Facebook pledged that it would ban false claims about the safety and efficacy of vaccines being distributed worldwide and claimed to have removed over 12 million pieces of content from Facebook and Instagram between March and October 2020.[viii] However, misinformation experts say the platform’s actions amount to far too little and too late, as well as there still being many accounts that openly promote false information.
The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a not-for-profit NGO seeking to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation, has also laid out plans for how to address these issues.[ix] They suggest that social media platforms must do more to remove prominent anti-vaxxers from their platforms such as hiring more human moderators (versus robots), stopping monetising of anti-vaccination misinformation, verifying information with professional medical providers and removing harmful movements from trending. A recent study found that in 2020, 95% of reported anti-vaccination information was not acted on by the main platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.ix More must be done to demonstrate to these businesses that these are serious issues, with many suggesting imposing stricter regulations such as legal sanctions for media platforms which host or share harmful medical information to better address this issue.
Other areas of the community are influential in building trust and could help to shift people’s perspectives on the vaccine. For example, many religious leaders have openly supported vaccination efforts and have made clear that religious texts do not oppose disease prevention. The NHS has also been working to overcome barriers by producing multilingual, non-stigmatising communications. For example, many doctors have helped to create videos, in the most commonly spoken languages, to help reassure communities of the vaccine's safety and efficacy.[x] This NHS anti-disinformation drive, driven by Dr Harpreet Sood, has also addressed many religious concerns such as whether the vaccine is compliant with dietary practices.[xi]
Moreover, Kizzmekia Corbett, an immunologist who helped design the Moderna vaccine, has been using Twitter to discuss vaccine science with communities of colour.[xii] In December 2020, a survey found that 46% of black adults in the U.S. were hesitant to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, compared with 30% of white respondents.[xiii] This scepticism has arisen from a legacy of exploitative medical research rooted in racism and historical segregation. Nevertheless, those like Kizzmekia are hoping to re-build trust by informing people in a digestible way and inviting questions to allow people to have their concerns listened to and addressed directly.
Vaccine hesitancy is an extremely important issue that affects every single one of us, and we must all do our bit to maintain good information hygiene. Pressure must be put on businesses including social media platforms to stick to their commitments to remove and protect society against the spread of false information. We must work together to reconcile the principles of free speech whilst policing social media or else we face a very difficult future.[ii]