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Rumors, hoaxes and misinformation have run rampant on social media since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Myths like “holding your breath for 10 seconds is a self-check for the illness” spread quickly and have often been refuted by fact-checkers. As the vaccines came to market at the end of 2020, misinformation about their true purpose was widespread.

Odds are, if you use social media you’ve seen some of these and maybe even reposted to your own social media pages. You’re not alone. The misinformed post about holding your breath for 10 seconds has gotten hundreds of thousands of retweets and shares.

Misinformation about COVID-19 generally falls into three categories: 1) Fake cures or preventive measures, 2) Fake information on the nature of the virus, and 3) Conspiracy theories about the purpose and efficacy of the vaccines.

So, why are we inclined to share disinformation during an event like COVID-19? “People are scared, they have been isolated for nearly a year, and they still don’t know what is true,” said Tiffani Conner, Ph.D., an ORAU social scientist with expertise in misinformation and social media research (pictured below). Conspiracy theories about the true nature of COVID-19 vaccines range from the injections serving a tool for government-designed population control to the federal government requiring everyone to get the vaccine to the needles also being used to insert microchips under the skin.

Some researchers believe that the speed with which the first vaccines were developed has contributed to the narrative that anti-vaccination proponents are spreading, Conner said.

Combating misinformation is not easy, she said. “People can be pulled into believing an incorrect statement because of emotion – whether that emotion is fear or a sense of community. Conspiracy theorists are not the only group motivated to push misinformation and contribute to what the World Health Organization has labeled an “infodemic.” Scammers, politicians and political operatives, medical professionals, family, friends and celebrities, and even humor can add to this infodemic.

Social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were regularly criticized for their lack of action against misinformation, and the platforms modified their policies and increased their efforts to combat the problem. Facebook has banned advertisements for guaranteed cures or preventive remedies for coronavirus, removing posts of harmful content, and adding fact-checkers. Twitter modified its search results to ensure the first item displayed when someone searched for vaccine-related topics, and has suspended accounts that spread misinformation. And YouTube has vowed to delete content that poses risks of harm or includes false claims about the vaccines. YouTube’s policy applies to all content associated with a video.

What does exposure to this COVID-19 vaccine misinformation do? “Several researchers have measured the effect of exposure to COVID-19 misinformation,” Conner said. “A study by Loomba et al. (October 2020) indicated that misinformation concerning the vaccine has led to a drop in the intent of people ‘who would otherwise definitely vaccinate’ by 6.4 percent (UK) and 2.4 percent in the US. A Pew Research Center study (December 3, 2020) showed improvement from a finding of 51 percent in September to 60 percent in November of individuals who would get a vaccine. Unfortunately the same study found that 21 percent are not planning to get the vaccine and do not believe new information would persuade them otherwise.”

How should an information consumer handle misinformation? Conner advises people to take a step back and breathe. “If something raises your anxiety, blood pressure, or nerves just take a minute to breathe and then ask yourself if the post makes sense or seems sensational,” she said. “Do not get all your news and information from social media. Back up any claims with facts from reliable sources. Use fact-checkers (Conner recommends Factcheck.org, Politifact.com, Snopes.com, and others.). Finally, help the social media companies fight disinformation by reporting false claims.”

Contact us

For information about ORAU’s health communication, preparedness and response solutions, contact Freddy Gray, director, Health Communication and Preparedness programs, at 865.576.0029 or freddy.gray@orau.org.