Countering the mainstream

Media’s Vaccine Misinformation Problem

by | Jul 13, 2021 | The Edge, Commentary, News

The extremely contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus has been spreading across the globe as vaccination rates lag. The U.S. is no exception. Reports from different parts of the country indicate that even fully vaccinated citizens have been susceptible to the variant. While the Pfizer vaccine appears to be 64% effective in preventing Delta infection, it is 93% effective in preventing hospitalization.

Unvaccinated people still face far higher danger—as shown in Maryland, where 100% of residents who died to COVID in June were unvaccinated. In the U.S., nearly 50% of the population is fully vaccinated, even as conspiracy theories and misinformation encourage the other half to avoid receiving shots.

In recent months on Fox News—long after network owner Rupert Murdoch received his COVID-19 vaccine and encouraged others to do the same—hosts Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham have been bashing U.S. vaccination efforts. The two continue to echo the common conservative talking point that the government-led vaccination campaign is violating civil liberties and wasting taxpayer dollars, contrary to the advice of global public health experts, who assert such efforts are critical to save lives and prevent further variants from spreading.

Fox’s staunch anti-vaccine broadcasts may be contributing to conservative resistance to the vaccine, posing danger both to the unvaccinated and the rest of the U.S. A Data analysis by Georgetown University researchers details how COVID spreads and mutates through clusters of unvaccinated people. And because “variant emergence stems from disease transmission,” the report notes that every new transmission of the disease “creates an opportunity for a new variant to transmit to another host and take hold in a population.”

Undervaccinated clusters in the U.S., “factories” for new COVID variants, are located in southern states such as Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Each of these states is now facing a rise in COVID cases as Delta tears through unvaccinated people. Aside from Georgia, each of these southern states voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election. This reflects the broader trend of political divide on vaccines, whereby counties that voted for Biden have higher vaccination rates than those that voted for Trump.

A Kaiser Family Foundation analysis of Centers for Disease Control data shows the stark divide is still growing. In April, counties that voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 election had a 20.6% vaccination rate, while counties that voted for Joe Biden had a 22.8% vaccination rate. The numbers as of July 6 stood at 35.0% in counties led by Trump and 46.7% in those led by Biden; after 10 weeks, the difference in counties’ vaccination rates across the political gap rose from 2.2% to 11.7%.

The disparity could be partly due to the particular right-leaning news media people consume. A March survey of 5,149 adults in the U.S. by the Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core found that the outlet conservatives go to could affect whether or not they decide to become vaccinated. The survey showed 54% of Republicans who reported trusting Fox News said they’d already received a COVID vaccine or planned to get one, while only 32% of Republicans who said they trust more extremist right-wing networks like One America News Network (OANN) or Newsmax said they’d do the same.

The same survey also shows that Fox is falling in popularity while more extreme outlets are on the rise. Though Fox’s news anchors have been spewing misinformation, others on the network have spoken against the vaccine bashing. OANN’s approach to conspiracy theories has been more aggressive, leading to a ban from YouTube in 2020 for listing fake COVID cures.

But one of the most prolific spreaders of vaccine disinformation may have been former President Donald Trump. A study published in PLOS One analyzed the behavior of anti-vaccine supporters to better understand vaccine hesitancy. It found that people against vaccines on Twitter tend to share conspiracy theories and use emotional language, and that the movement’s success depends on a strong sense of community based on content from a few profiles of “strong influencers.” It stands to reason then, that the “data demonstrate that Donald Trump, before his profile was suspended, was the main driver of vaccine misinformation on Twitter.”

Trump recently announced that he’s suing Facebook, Google, and Twitter for banning him after he spread lies about the 2020 election. His suit against Facebook takes issue with communications between Anthony Fauci and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg that aimed to curb COVID disinformation on the platform—a move that would mean limiting Trump’s statements.

Unfortunately, many other sources of COVID disinformation remain on Facebook after Trump’s ban, including the platform’s most successful news outlet, The Daily Wire. The Ben Shapiro-founded conservative outlet has been known to spread conspiracy theories and dominates in engagements on the platform.

As a Nieman Lab study involving 4,500 participants showed, reading fake news does appear to have a minor influence on people’s behavior. Some participants developed false memories about the made-up stories they read, which also slightly affected their decisions—but, the study notes, “even small effects can produce big changes.” Unfounded concerns about a link between the MMR vaccine and autism led to about a 10% drop in childhood vaccination rates in the early 2000s, which resulted in a significant spike in measles cases. The study also stipulates that people are often repeatedly exposed to the same piece of misinformation, which can increase how true it seems, and that misinformation warnings had no effect on people’s responses to fake stories.

To combat vaccine hesitancy, the PLOS One study recommends campaigns targeted to educate anti-vaxxers. Widespread campaigns to disseminate scientific findings alongside a higher standard for news on social media platforms must be organized to improve vaccination rates and stop the mutation of further COVID variants.

However, COVID-19 will not disappear even if the majority of Americans are vaccinated. In low-income countries, only 1% of people have received at least one vaccine dose. During the week that ended in July 4, African countries recorded over 251,000 new COVID-19 cases, in a 12% rise from the high point in January.

The need for equitable access to the vaccine presents a global challenge to which the U.S must demonstrate its commitment. The Biden administration has begun disbursing 80 million doses to developing countries as part of the international vaccine-sharing initiative Covax, but further action will be needed to vaccinate the world.

False information and conspiracy theories peddled by right-wing media and proliferated on Big Tech platforms influence the entire planet. Scientists, media watchdogs, Congress, and journalists will play a critical role in ensuring global public health during the coming months and years.

Photo via Alexander Limbach/Shutterstock

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