I’ll say this for the conspiracists, they are nothing if not creative. The lies they spread to undermine vaccine confidence are getting weirder by the day. Now, in the latest cruel twist of the infodemic, they’ve pivoted to targeting the vaccinated and their loved ones.
All kinds of wild conspiracies have been circulating since the early days of the pandemic, but recently they have hit new heights of absurdity. I admit my jaw dropped at reports of people who had previously refused to wear masks putting them on to protect themselves from the vaccinated.
Let’s be clear, it is medically impossible for anyone having received the COVID vaccine to “shed” the vaccine to others, causing health problems, as some conspiracists claim. Strange it might be, but this bid to attach social stigma to getting the jab is just the latest in a string of lies designed to spread fear and confusion. As if there wasn’t enough around already.
More than a year into the pandemic, misinformation monitors say they are overwhelmed by the non-stop barrage of rumors circulating online. The falsehoods are everywhere, from dangerous fake cures and supposed protective therapies to claims that COVID doesn’t exist, or wild conspiracy theories about its origins.
The focus now is firmly on the vaccines. False or misleading claims, once online, can fly around the world at the click of a mouse, swelling the ranks of the COVID skeptics and seriously undermining the global effort to end the pandemic through vaccination and herd immunity.
Surveys show many now reluctant to get vaccinated had their fears first sparked by a claim shared on social media. Those fears, if allowed to grow and percolate, can cause people to refuse vaccination, and even stop others getting protected. In this way, misinformation is prolonging the pandemic, and all the suffering that goes with it.
So, what can we do about it? Together with social impact agency Purpose, we’ve launched the platform Verified, our contribution to tackling the infodemic. By producing reliable vaccine and health guidance in a form designed to be shareable, the project aims to drown out the lies on social media feeds, as well as debunk them.
But we know that centralized messaging can only get us so far. That’s why we’re also recruiting trusted voices to help us spread the good news about the vaccines. Some people want to hear guidance from community or religious leaders, while others look to influencers, artists or celebrities. Still others want to hear from the medics themselves.
That’s the idea behind Team Halo, an initiative to amplify the voices of medics and other scientists on social media. After some training, volunteer doctors and biochemists start sharing posts explaining their work, bringing people into their labs, answering questions and dispelling fears about the vaccines along the way.
And it is working. Results from focus study groups show that engaging with scientists on social media reassures people that the COVID-19 vaccines are effective and safe. It also helps people become better at spotting myths and clarifies understanding of how the vaccines do (and don’t) work.
All this is progress, but it isn’t a cure for the infodemic. We’re still working on that. And you know what else? This isn’t a problem that can be solved by the UN alone. We must all work together to drive change, shift norms and tap into people’s sense of solidarity to keep each other safe.
We have a long way to go to adjust to this disconcerting age of misinformation. It could be decades before education, media practices, and regulation catch up. Until then, we must all learn to do our bit, amplify the truth from trusted sources and tackle the lies head on, however bizarre they might get.