“Vaccination is the most effective method of preventing infectious diseases”
– World Health Organization (WHO), 2021
Guest Post by: Shifa Ai
Two years ago, if I were to be researching an article about vaccine misinformation, it would likely be about the resurgence of measles in communities whose residents have been turning down recommended vaccines for their school-aged children. Maybe I would be writing about flu vaccination coverage, or perhaps the efficacy of the Gardasil vaccine in preventing HPV-related cancers. While people refuse vaccines for a variety of reasons, often these reasons are fueled by personal or emotional fears instead of logical, scientifically significant evidence and/or a qualified medical recommendation.
For every vaccine, there are health-related reasons whereby certain members of the population cannot be vaccinated—for example, some people are too young, whereas others may be allergic to specific vaccine ingredients.
Other reasons people may not take a vaccine is because they do not have access to it; Covid vaccine eligibility only recently expanded to everyone over 16 in the United States, depending on the state. Apart from physical access and legitimate medical issues, many of the remaining reasons for people refusing vaccinations do so because they believe any number of widely disseminated conspiracy theories centered around vaccines.
A quick google search on the sentiment “personal objections to vaccines” will provide thousands of sources to reinforce their predisposition towards vaccine risks. And, a poor understanding of basic cellular biology will only help to reinforce people’s misunderstanding of vaccine science and the individual and public health risks associated with vaccine use or disuse. In the measles resurgence, many parents cited a fear of their child developing autism as the reason for rejecting the vaccine, yet no peer-reviewed studies yet have linked vaccines to the development of autism despite thousands of online sources claiming they do.
These kinds of misinformation campaigns use vulnerable netizens as vectors for false medical research and public health information, only serving to increase and convolute the stigma associated with both autism and the administration of life-saving vaccines. Other personal rejections to vaccines may include that they were produced using bacterial or animal material and some consider them to be inhumane and/or unclean because of the perceived implications of their ingredients. For example, HEK-293, a kidney cell line isolated from an aborted fetus in 1973, has been used in the development of life-saving vaccines in the past; those opposed to the use of human tissues in vaccines often cite HEK-293 as a reason for their ethical or religious rejection of vaccines overall. In fact, HEK-293 was not used in the developmental stage of the Moderna and Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines, and institutions like the Catholic church have issued statements to certify that taking these vaccines still adheres to the moral code of their religion. Unfortunately, recent polls show around half of vaccine rejectors still believe vaccines are a direct cause of autism.
In the case of Covid vaccines now available, public sharing of false information about side effects, testing and risk assessment have dramatically slowed vaccine uptake in the US. A recent study conducted by YouGov found nine out of every ten vaccine rejecters to believe that Covid vaccines were not tested adequately prior to being released, and three in every five are convinced that taking the vaccine causes infertility. Furthermore, conspiracy theories and public distrust of institutions inherent to the climate of rampant skepticism in our society has led to even wilder vaccine claims; up to half of people who say they won’t take any Covid vaccine believe that the government is using the injections to microchip the American population, and more than half believe the Covid vaccine will alter their DNA (NOTE: Covid vaccines contain mRNA, not DNA, and do not interact with human DNA in any way).
Parents turning away vaccines don’t think they’re doing so for selfish reasons; they actually believe that they are protecting their child due to misinformation they’ve been exposed to. Similarly, many un- or underqualified individuals sharing vaccine information online often do so because they think they are truly helping their peers by dissuading them away from what they believe to be a dangerous cocktail. Regardless of their intentions, however, people producing, sharing and reinforcing vaccine misinformation in public forums are having the opposite effect, in fact harming their friends, family and those they don’t know as their voices take the place of qualified medical professionals, researchers, and regulatory institutions. In the case of the current Covid-19 pandemic, the proliferation of vaccine misinformation has devastating consequences for individuals and families exposed to the virus.
So, what is the best method for controlling all this misinformation being shared? Social media juggernauts like Twitter, Facebook and now even foreign-owned social media companies like TikTok are all powerful driving forces for vaccine uptake in communities not only in the US but around the globe. Made-up memes, unfounded sources and false infographics perpetuated as true have now become the norm in our cyberspaces and public forums.
Does it become these companies’ responsibility to filter through misinformation being created to serve anti-public health agendas? Much of the American public says yes; indeed, Facebook and others have recently cracked down on automatic fact-checking software for sources and information posted on their platforms. But it’s not as easy as simply correcting the misinformation out there; social scientists have shown a common phenomenon called the “backlash effect” where correcting misinformation causes people to double down on their false beliefs, seeking other sources that will verify their viewpoint instead of changing their opinion. Additionally, changes in policy and political climate can have trickle-down consequences regarding vaccine uptake; when Maine, New York and Washington State removed their religious exemptions for vaccines, organizations and voices opposed to mandatory vaccines quickly surfaced online.
Recent research from the RAND Institute indicates that on relatively uncensored platforms like Twitter, vaccine misinformation is being produced by dedicated human actors and institutions oftentimes with many other political and social agendas, using hashtags and trending topics to link and push comments, sources and pages reinforcing vaccine propaganda.
“Most of the top sources of vaccine misinformation appear to have vested interests in peddling vaccine misinformation— non-profit advocacy or research organizations that operate on donations, authors, speakers, TV-hosts that exploit controversial materials, and naturopathic practitioners that sell alternative medicine, and the rest are parents who blame vaccines for their children’s developmental disabilities. Collectively, they pose themselves as patient advocates, vaccine truthers, (pseudo)scientists, vaccine libertarians, and conspiracy theorists to attract following. The top propagators, on the other hand, has a much larger presence of parents, especially those with allegedly vaccine-injured children. There is also a high fraction of individuals expressing conservative or libertarian values.”
– Christine Chen, Research Analyst
Chen then reiterates these companies’ need to develop misinformation identification tools, describing how platforms like Twitter can use algorithms to verify information and sources as well as identify misinformation campaigns, influencers, bots and bad actors. Due to past lapses in social media platforms’ regulation of false information shared amongst uses, dangerous public misperceptions have persisted despite being repeatedly debunked by peer-reviewed research, and it’s up to these platforms to regulate the way medical information is being shared on their systems to move into a digital future more socially just for users.
Both social media companies as well as the people that use these websites have a responsibility to the truth, especially when misinformation can have so many widespread health outcomes for people being exposed to this deadly, emergent disease. We need public health solutions and counter-strategies for navigating this new landscape of questionable resources including community tailored infographics and posts that increase access to correct vaccine information; we need regulatory requirements for social media platforms to fact-check the information being shared by their users; and we need a public willing to learn from qualified sources, with the ability to be able to discern where this information is coming from.
Chen, Christine. “Dissemination of Vaccine Misinformation on Twitter and Its Countermeasures.” Pardee Rand Graduate School, 2021, www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/rgs_dissertations/RGSDA1300/RGSDA1332-1/RAND_RGSDA1332-1.pdf.
“COVID-19 VACCINE AND FETAL CELL LINES.” Los Angeles County, 2021, www.publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/Coronavirus/docs/vaccine/VaccineDevelopment_FetalCellLines.pdf.
Frankovic, Kathy. “Vaccine Rejectors Believe the Vaccines Were Not Adequately Tested and Can Cause Infertility.” YouGov, 14 May 2021, today.yougov.com/topics/politics/articles-reports/2021/05/14/vaccine-rejectors-believe-vaccines-not-tested.