Infodemic: Combatting COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation

Closeup of doctor taking vaccine out of vile with needle

In a remarkable human achievement, it took about nine months after the global pandemic was declared for scientists to develop and administer the first coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine to the general public. And ever since that first jab was given to a 90-year-old grandmother in the U.K., 10 billion doses have been administered, saving countless lives in the process.

In an attempt to considerably weaken COVID-19’s years-long grip, the World Health Organization (WHO) hopes to have 70% of the world vaccinated this year. The rush to vaccinate is understandable: Various studies examining the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines report significantly lower death rates for people who are vaccinated.

The ambitious mass vaccination effort faces considerable obstacles, however. Aside from overall vaccine hesitancy and the inequitable distribution of vaccines, governments and other institutions are also combatting what experts refer to as an “infodemic.” 

It’s a problem that has raised alarms within public health circles and government agencies. Even the Pope himself has been outspoken, characterizing infodemics as “a distortion of reality based on fear, falsified or invented news,” adding that access to accurate information is a “human right.”  

Addressing vaccine and virus misinformation, which easily spreads on social media platforms, has emerged as a key priority for governments and public health agencies. Officials have gone to considerable lengths to assuage concerns over COVID-19 vaccines and provide the public with accurate and updated information. At the same time, an urgent, data-driven strategy can play an important role in exposing virulent misinformation campaigns and can have a positive effect in boosting vaccine rates. 

What Is an Infodemic? 

The WHO’s definition of “infodemic” is broad and goes far beyond merely distorted and inaccurate information. 

According to the global public health agency: “An infodemic is an overabundance of information, both online and offline. It includes deliberate attempts to disseminate wrong information to undermine the public health response and advance alternative agendas of groups or individuals. Mis- and disinformation can be harmful to people’s physical and mental health; increase stigmatization; threaten precious health gains; and lead to poor observance of public health measures, thus reducing their effectiveness and endangering countries’ ability to stop the pandemic.” 

“Misinformation costs lives,” the WHO adds. “Without the appropriate trust and correct information, diagnostic tests go unused, immunization campaigns (or campaigns to promote effective vaccines) will not meet their targets, and the virus will continue to thrive.” 

The WHO’s definition of “infodemic” is broad and goes far beyond merely distorted and inaccurate information.

To educate the public amid what the WHO declared were twin crises—the COVID-19 pandemic and associated infodemic—its members in May 2020 passed a resolution to “address mis- and disinformation in the digital sphere, work to prevent harmful cyber activities undermining the health response and support the provision of science-based data to the public.” 

COVID-19 Social Media Misinformation  

The counter-misinformation strategy also encouraged the development of actionable plans to reckon with the infodemic, conduct community outreach, and for social media and influential internet platforms to prevent the spread of bogus pandemic information. Recalling the effort to drive down COVID-19 cases and get a better handle on the pandemic in its early weeks and months, the WHO challenged the public to “flatten the infodemic curve.”

The agency’s infodemic-combatting blueprint has essentially been a lesson in media literacy: Assess the source, go beyond headlines, identify the author, check the date, examine the evidence, check your biases, and turn to fact-checkers. 

“It helps to think of misinformation and disinformation spreading in the same way as viruses,” states the WHO. “One person might share fake news with their friends and family, and then a handful of them share it with more of their friends and family, and before you know it, potentially harmful or dangerous information is taking over everyone’s newsfeed.” 

As for the roles of various social media platforms (SMPs) in perpetuating falsehoods about COVID-19 and the vaccine, a study conducted by U.S.-based Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review found that SMPs have “contributed to facilitating the rapid spread of mis- and disinformation.” 

It cites several examples, including “claims that 5G causes the virus and that COVID-19 vaccines alter DNA.” 

Researchers highlighted yet another study that found “exposure to such types of misinformation was negatively associated with vaccination intention, illustrating that misinformation has real consequences for containing the pandemic.” 

An over-saturation of COVID-19 news can also have a negative effect on people, making it difficult to process evolving guidelines and distinguish fact from fiction. On that note, a WHO infodemic survey found that 58% of respondents said they are “overwhelmed” by COVID-19 information, with 52% also admitting to have stopped paying attention to pandemic-related news.   

Vaccine Equity 

If the WHO is to meet its goal of vaccinating 70% of the world population against COVID-19 this year, governments will also have to redouble efforts to ensure the equitable delivery and administration of vaccines. As of this publication, only 10.6% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose of an approved COVID-19 vaccine. 

The data confirms what many people in developing countries, especially in Africa, have been saying about the unequal distribution of vaccines. Most western countries have vaccinated well over 60% of their populations. Meanwhile, Ethiopia (8.6%), Nigeria (7%), the Democratic Republic of Congo (0.47%), and many other nations are desperate to get people inoculated. To put the troubled global rollout in perspective, at the current pace of vaccination, the Democratic Republic of Congo won’t hit the 70% goal laid out by the WHO until 2065

In response to questions about vaccine availability in Africa, Maaza Seyoum of the South Africa-based advocacy group African Alliance tells the U.S.-based outlet NPR: “Initially, 100 percent, I would say the problem was a lack of access (to vaccines) and a global system that did not prioritize African countries.” 

Leveraging Data to Combat COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation 

The aforementioned Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review study identifies several possible solutions to combatting misinformation, such as adding warning labels to certain content or removing problematic posts, altogether. 

The U.S.-based political scientist Brendan Nyhan tells Scientific American that concerns vary by group, underscoring the importance of gaining a better understanding of specific communities. 

“The most effective messenger in the Black community won’t be the same one as among Republicans, obviously,” says Nyhan. “We need to meet each community where they are and understand the reasons for their mistrust.”

Effectively tackling a public health crisis and an infodemic is incredibly difficult. People from differing socioeconomic backgrounds have varied reasons for either choosing to get vaccinated or declining to do so.

The authors of an article on effective vaccine campaigns in the American Journal of Public Health say the best strategies “anticipate, plan for, and respond to the concerns that people have, understanding that trust in vaccines is dynamic and achievable through sustained community engagement. Low- and middle-income nations have consistently shown the rest of the world how to achieve excellence in vaccine delivery, from Nigeria eliminating polio after partnering with religious leaders to promote immunizations, to Rwanda vaccinating 93% of girls against human papillomavirus (HPV) after enlisting local leaders in outreach.” 

The authors add: “Instead of acknowledging this remarkable vaccination track record, outsiders have taken reports of declined vaccine shipments in some African countries—likely the result of numerous factors, including poorly coordinated donations and the difficulty of moving doses to rural areas—as evidence of widespread distrust across the continent, overlooking the heterogeneity of 54 countries, more than one billion people, and distinct local health, cultural, and political contexts that strongly influence vaccine uptake.” 

Effectively tackling a public health crisis and an infodemic is incredibly difficult. People from differing socioeconomic backgrounds have varied reasons for either choosing to get vaccinated or declining to do so. Encouraging the latter to roll up their sleeves takes persistence, patience, and empathetic dialogue. Combatting misinformation is another problem altogether, and can feel difficult to get under control. That’s why leveraging contextualized data that paints a more accurate picture of people’s concerns is among the most useful tools at our disposal to take on this increasingly growing challenge. 


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