- A new study says that social media fact-checking can play an important role in slowing the spread of vaccine misinformation.
- People who saw posts tagged with fact-checking labels had a more positive view of vaccines than those who saw only the misinformation.
- Having accurate information is important since widespread vaccination will play an essential role in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Educating yourself and others about how to recognize credible sources of information can help as well.
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Social media abounds with misinformation and conspiracy theories about vaccines. Some sources suggest that they can cause autism or are full of dangerous toxins. Yet others believe they are a plot to control society.
Given the ability of vaccines to prevent disease and save lives, public health experts say it’s very important that unfounded beliefs such as these are wiped out.
Public health experts around the world have long fought to dispel such myths by educating people with the facts.
Now, a new study says that social media fact-checking may play a valuable role in these efforts.
The study found that fact-checking labels on misinformation helped people view vaccines in a more favorable light.
For the study, the researchers tested to see the effects of the use of fact-checking labels.
Over 1,000 people with varying levels of “vaccine hesitancy” from around the United States were involved in the study.
A mock Twitter account was used to display several different misinformation messages covering five vaccine types and five categories of 13 fact-checking sources.
The researchers used alternating fact-checking labels from various sources, including the media and organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
What they found was that the people who were shown fact-checking labels were more likely to have a positive view of vaccines than those who saw the misinformation alone.
In addition, vaccine skepticism, the type of vaccine misinformation, and political beliefs didn’t affect this outcome.
The study authors suggest that something as simple as tagging the information as false and linking to a credible source can be effective in changing attitudes about vaccines.
They recommend that ideally this should be done by the social media company itself in conjunction with institutions like the World Health Organization (WHO).
Dr. XinQi Dong, MPH, director of the Institute for Health, Health Care Policy and Aging Research at Rutgers University, said he feels that misinformation spreads in the same way that gossip spreads.
“Sometimes misinformation feeds into our preconceived notions of what we think the truth may be or what the false narratives may be, and sometimes people are looking for that confirmation,” he said.
Dr. Maureen R. Tierney, an infectious diseases specialist and associate professor of medicine at Creighton University School of Medicine, suggested that there’s also an increasing “distrust of the scientific establishment.”
“This is such a unique situation that the Western world is not used to,” Tierney said. “We are used to taking drugs and vaccines that have been around for a while with established safety records.”
“Information that is not vetted and reviewed by reputable scientists could lead people to not protect themselves or their children based on erroneous information,” Tierney said.
Dong agrees. “Vaccination is critically important for saving lives and ending the global pandemic,” he said.
“If enough people get vaccinated, COVID-19 infections can be drastically reduced and the disease potentially even eliminated,” Dong said.
The CDC said that vaccinations, combined with other measures like wearing masks, washing our hands, and practicing physical distancing, are our best way of protecting ourselves.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, so we need to do everything we can to help people find credible sources of information about COVID-19 vaccines and feel confident in their decisions,” Dong said.
“In general, health agencies run by the federal government and international public health organizations are credible sources of vaccine information,” he noted. These include:
- National Institutes of Health
- National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases
“Many academic institutions and large healthcare organizations are also credible, such as the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and accredited universities and health systems,” Dong said.
He also suggests that people should look carefully at dates because information can change rapidly as more research is conducted.
In addition, he suggests that people look for links and references to peer-reviewed research and original, credible sources.
When it comes to sorting out sources of information that aren’t credible, Dong said that if you focus on the above criteria it becomes easier to distinguish information that’s not reliable or simply out of date.
Tierney seconded the idea that information that doesn’t reference trusted sources, such as established medical journals and academic institutions, may not be credible.
In addition, she noted that “newer groups with an agenda and specific cause that are trying hard to prove a particular stance” may be suspect.
In addition to educating ourselves, it’s important to help our friends and family find good quality information.
Dong suggests pointing them to the type of credible information sources described above.
He also suggests that when friends and family share information, we should ask them where it comes from and check whether the source is credible.
“Credible information may not be accessible to some, for example, if they don’t speak English, or they don’t have access to a computer or other resources,” he said.
“So, it is important for us to ensure vulnerable individuals and communities have access to credible information as well,” Dong said.