This week saw two pieces of welcome news: Pfizer announced a COVID-19 vaccine that may be 90 percent effective, and President-elect Joe Biden named his coronavirus task force. Yet it was troubling that vaccine misinformation wasn’t addressed.
Misinformation fuels mistrust, whether or not it directly causes it. Indeed, Pfizer and Biden made their announcements to a world that has grown more and more suspicious of all vaccines, let alone one for COVID-19. In America, only half the population says they would be willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, severely hampering efforts to fight the virus, which has killed nearly 1.3 million people worldwide.
So while many may have logged on to social media this week to find posts from excited friends planning their next vacation or celebrating the end of lockdowns in the near future, on the social media spaces I monitor as a misinformation researcher, I saw post after post from people spreading rumors about a COVID-19 vaccine and saying they would refuse to take one.
Between June and September, researchers at my organization, First Draft, gathered every tweet, Facebook post, and Instagram post they could that included the keywords “vaccine” or “vaccination.” To glimpse a snapshot of the global landscape, we looked at posts in three languages — English, Spanish, and French — that spanned 41 countries. In all, we retrieved more than 14 million posts (caveat: there were many more, but the platforms don’t make gathering posts easy). We then culled the 1,200 posts that users had engaged with the most as measured by likes, shares, comments, and retweets. What we learned will be crucial as the world prepares to roll out a COVID-19 vaccine.
Some of these posts were outright falsehoods, some distorted the truth, and some were designed to trigger emotional responses such as fear or anger. But these posts cannot be understood in isolation. They work together across social media sites to form larger narratives. A meme about hydroxychloroquine, a post about GMOs, and a false news piece about people dying from vaccinations work collectively to tell a larger story about how vaccines aren’t safe.
Despite the media’s focus on anti-vax communities and the tired myth that vaccines cause autism, the narratives we observed did not just challenge the safety and efficacy of vaccines. They also questioned the motives behind them, claiming that Biden wants to mandate vaccines or that Bill Gates is using vaccines to microchip and track populations. Cultural context was also key. Despite the supposedly borderless Web, some narratives were confined to particular languages. Posts in English decried the threat to civil liberties posed by quarantines and lockdowns, while posts in Spanish trumpeted religious faith as the only true way to stop the virus.
Additionally, everyone who takes misinformation seriously — policy makers, staff at the social media platforms, journalists, and researchers — needs to take narratives seriously. Too often their focus is on individual posts and whether they should be taken down, demoted, debunked, or labeled. Yet their myopia leads to ineffectual policies.
When measles broke out in Brooklyn, in 2019, many platforms (first Pinterest, and then Facebook and Twitter) took the uncharacteristic step of removing vaccine misinformation. But because they removed only demonstrably false information, they ignored posts that challenged the value of widespread immunization, memes that demonized Gates and his vaccination programs, and videos that falsely implied that vaccinated children suffered from terrible side effects. All of these contributed to a wider narrative.
Narratives, however, cannot simply be debunked or labeled. As posts pile up in a daily drip, drip, drip of content, they slowly shape the way we make sense of new information. Unlike a single post, a larger narrative can undermine trust not just in vaccines, but also the very institutions of science.
Luckily, we are starting to understand where narratives thrive.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the public’s demand for reliable information has far outstripped the supply, in what we call “data deficits.” False narratives rush in to fill the vacuum. On the other hand, when there’s too much information, even reliable information, most people stop listening. They opt for the simplicity of false narratives over the complexity of the truth. As people have clamored for simple explanations to make sense of the pandemic, disparate fringe groups have allied into united blocs. Members of QAnon, anti-vaxxers, New Age communities, and Second Amendment enthusiasts are coming together in social media groups. They agree that quarantines and lockdowns are threats to what they consider to be their liberty and freedom, albeit for different reasons.
We may be sleep-walking into a situation that will be impossible to reverse, no matter how safe the eventual COVID-19 vaccine is. No matter how many scientists support widespread immunization programs that could allow people to move freely again, to hug their families, to travel across borders, and to get back to work to allow economies to recover, this daily deluge of low-level misinformation will have created narrative frames that are incredibly difficult to counter.
Claire Wardle is cofounder and US director of First Draft.