A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 27, 2021

What Tactics Are Working Against Covid Vaccine Disinformation

Taking a lesson from epidemiology itself, those combating disinformation are finding that 'inoculation messages' work.

Social media listening efforts pick up weak signals and new rumors. The key is to share parts of them quickly, but include additional information about the motivations of those spreading them as well as the reasons they are ridiculously false. Giving a weakened version of a false rumor is similar to giving a vaccine or antibody which disables the host virus. JL

Adele Peters reports in Fast Company:

Rumors about the supposed dangers of vaccines have grown more prominent with COVID-19. “People believe these things more than in historical memory.” Social listening-tracking trends on social media-to find gaps in information about the vaccines to respond to rumors, uses “inoculation” messages, with the theory that if you expose someone to a rumor the right way in advance, they’ll be less susceptible to it. This involves sharing a clear, “sticky” fact people will remember, then giving a warning with a weakened version of the rumor, flagging reasons why someone might share that for financial or political gain, then finishing with the correct information. Recent studies suggest the approach can help.

In an apartment that she shares with her sister in Dhaka, Bangladesh, 24-year-old Sultana Mehjabin Tushi now spends her free time scrolling through social media looking for lies about COVID-19 vaccines.

Like the rest of the world, Bangladesh has been flooded with misinformation about COVID-19 and the new vaccines. Tushi is a volunteer for a program run by UNICEF that trains young people to find and report misleading posts online. “A recent rumor about the COVID-19 vaccine I came across was that it will endanger the lives of people and will be even more dangerous than the COVID-19 virus ‘made by China,'” she says. “‘They want to harm Bangladeshi people, and that’s why we should not take it. I saw it in a random Facebook group and reported it after seeing it.”

It’s one small piece of the work that organizations such as UNICEF and governments are doing to try to increase acceptance of the COVID-19 vaccines in the developing world. In one recent survey in Bangladesh, around a third of respondents said that they were reluctant to take the vaccine. The numbers vary by country, but in much of the world, a significant proportion of the population still isn’t convinced that they want to be vaccinated. The slow rollout of vaccines is another major challenge, but as vaccines become more readily available, the fight against misinformation will only become more pressing.


Vaccine hesitancy has been a problem as long as vaccines have existed. But social media has helped amplify it in many low-income countries—as much as it has in the U.S. In 2019, in Pakistan, a fake video claiming to show children in a hospital after getting the polio vaccine spread to tens of thousands of people within hours on Twitter, Facebook, and WhatsApp. Thousands of Pakistanis took their children to a hospital after seeing it; a mob of 500 people set fire to a health clinic in Peshawar near where the vaccine had been given. In less than a week, authorities suspended the polio vaccination program. Two million children missed getting the potentially lifesaving vaccine.

Rumors about the supposed dangers of vaccines have grown more prominent with COVID-19. “People seem to really be believing some of these things more than in our historical memory,” says Heidi Larson, the founder of the Vaccine Confidence Project, a research group that studies vaccine misinformation and hesitancy at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “I think in these times of hyper-uncertainty, people need some story that makes all of this somehow coherent. And some of these conspiracies give a storyline to it that kind of makes sense.”

Many of the ideas are recycled from previous conspiracies: Before some people claimed that 5G caused COVID-19, others claimed that 4G caused H1N1 and 3G caused SARS. The misinformation varies by location, though there are many common threads. In Afghanistan, some people don’t think they need the vaccine because of a persistent rumor that Muslims are immune to the virus. In sub-Saharan Africa, “we’ve seen many people claim that COVID doesn’t affect Africans, and it’s a white-person problem that governments are using to delay elections,” says Mesfin Teklu Tessema, the head of the health unit at the International Rescue Committee, a nonprofit that works with refugees and others displaced by war and natural disasters. Others believe that the vaccine causes infertility.

When people are living in a conflict zone or under a government they don’t trust, they’re even more likely to be susceptible to misinformation. During an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo, for example, “People saw people dying from Ebola, and they still resisted using the vaccine,” Tessema says. “They saw it as a government tool to intimidate them or to sterilize the population. Because they have decades of hostilities and mistrust with the government, anything that comes from [the capital] Kinshasa is received with suspicion.”

In the case of Ebola, the International Rescue Committee focused on working with people who were trusted in the community—healthcare workers, religious leaders, and other community leaders—to share accurate information about the vaccine. It’s the same basic strategy that it and other organizations are relying on for the COVID-19 vaccines. It’s especially important in areas where internet access still isn’t widespread. “It’s really about interpersonal relationships and that community dialogue that really matters in those places,” he says.

Nonprofits are also racing to track misinformation about the vaccines, both in person and online. In northeastern Nigeria, for example, the nonprofit Mercy Corps set up a rumor-tracking system for COVID-19 misinformation last year that it can now use for misinformation about the vaccines specifically. “We trained ‘truth champions,’ people who were part of community groups, to send back to us the rumors that they were hearing or the questions that they were getting around COVID,” says Nicole Grable, a public health adviser at Mercy Corps who focuses on social and behavior change. “And so we were able to track and monitor and understand what those trends were.” The truth champions reported rumors via text messages and phone calls and would then get an automated call back with accurate information that they could use to refute the rumors.

In Liberia and Burkina Faso, UNICEF is using social listening—tracking trends on social media—to find both gaps in information and rumors about the new vaccines. To respond to rumors, one strategy it’s testing is to use “inoculation” messages, with the theory that if you expose someone to a rumor in the right way in advance, they’ll be less susceptible to it later, in the same way that a vaccine made from a weakened virus can help protect someone from the actual virus.

The strategy involves sharing a clear, “sticky” fact that people will remember, then giving a warning with a weakened version of the rumor, flagging reasons why someone might share that rumor for financial or political gain, and then finishing the message with the correct information again. Recent studies suggest that the approach can help. A recent guide for governments and organizations about vaccine misinformation that UNICEF developed with the Yale Institute for Global Health and the nonprofits First Draft and the Public Goods Projects explains the strategy, along with an overall approach to tackling the problem.


Post a Comment