The COVID-19 vaccine is currently known to be the best solution to stop the spread of the virus that has already claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States. Yet 21 percent of American adults say they will not get the vaccine. While the demand for vaccines in San Antonio appears to be outpacing supplies, there are still many who remain skeptical. Some who are choosing to opt out of vaccination are uncertain about its safety due to misinformation they have encountered about the vaccine. 

The widespread sharing of misinformation, coined by researchers as an “infodemic,” has the potential to cause significant challenges for COVID-19 recovery efforts. In order to combat the spread of misinformation, journalists must be careful about the information they publish and the public must be careful about their sources of information. 

More than 80 percent of Americans believe they have encountered misinformation in the news. Incorrect COVID-19 vaccine information reaches large audiences through media channels like news websites and social media. Social media users tend to share and comment on stories whether or not they are confirmed as true news. The stories may easily spread COVID-19 vaccine misinformation in large social media networks. Users’ exposure to and clicks on inaccurate vaccine information can create algorithmic bias in which social media systematically and repeatedly displays one aspect of an issue more than diverse views.

Recent research discovered that most COVID-19 vaccine misinformation on social media is pedaled by news bots and foreign adversaries. A recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) also found that anti-vaccine networks on social media have over 57 million followers globally. Misinformation disproportionately affects certain sectors of American society such as immigrants, who are thought to be at greater risk, because social media channels are major information sources for them.

When an unidentified news website spreads health risks and political conspiracies regarding the vaccine, such skewed framing can eventually influence negative social consequences including fear, anti-vaccine protests and opinion polarization. Those who create vaccine conspiracies appeal to personal identity and political ideology. When news articles about the COVID-19 vaccine agree with people’s identities or political views, readers tend to believe that the stories are accurate despite evidence to the contrary. The people in the same identity and political groups may only want to support in-group views and refrain from out-group viewpoints. As a result, the spread of misinformation lowers the credibility of news outlets. 

The challenge of sharing accurate information is further compounded by news framing, where journalists or citizens emphasize only some aspects of an issue, resulting in infodemics. This news focus has the potential to mislead audiences to understand the issue in a limited way. People’s exposure to some news websites that emphasize threats of the COVID-19 vaccine can create misperceptions and uncertainty, which can lead to the avoidance of vaccination. 

But how do we prevent the spread of this misinformation? First, news organizations need to verify vaccine information thoroughly before publication. Journalists should share only officially published scientific results with their audiences as opposed to unofficial and unpublished ongoing research. They should also actively dispel myths through interviews with experts. Some news outlets and health care providers have published articles correcting misinformation, including the most widespread myths about the vaccine being too rushed to be safe, inserting a microchip for the government to track citizens, altering the recipient’s DNA, and giving the recipient the virus. Countering misinformation like this can help calm fears surrounding the vaccine.

The role of public figures in both the government and social sectors is crucial. Leading health, government, and business officials, along with other influencers’ voices can be used to deliver accurate information and contribute to trust in the COVID-19 vaccine. Accurate vaccine-related information with public figures’ endorsements will raise the credibility of the news and positively influence public opinion. As seen in news media lately, public figures’ vaccinations on live television can bolster confidence in the vaccine.

The public also plays an important role in filtering out and correcting misinformation on the COVID-19 vaccine. We must monitor news and information about the vaccine proactively and critically. We can do this by fact-checking and cross-checking the information we encounter on news websites and social media. Be careful to separate fact from opinion and pay close attention to images, infographics, data, and videos about the COVID-19 vaccine by checking for quality and sources. Low-quality, unprofessional articles and unfamiliar sources are possible evidence of misinformation. If the headline of the story about the vaccine is too sensational, that should raise a red flag for readers. Some social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram label misinformation posts as false stories or misleading claims and provide a link to authentic information. We can check these labels for accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccine and only share official publications from credible sources like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), research hospitals, and universities. 

Nondiscriminatory, accurate information about the COVID-19 vaccine will protect us all. Misinformation about the vaccine can lead to distrust and lower vaccine adoption. Concerted efforts to send and receive accurate information will help our country recover from COVID-19 more efficiently and effectively.

Seok Kang

Seok Kang

Seok Kang is a professor in the Department of Communication and associate dean for research in the College of Liberal and Fine Arts at The University of Texas at San Antonio.