False claims about COVID-19 vaccines are spreading widely on social media, researchers warn. They could undermine public health efforts to curb the pandemic.



Dr. Anthony Fauci says at least 75% of people need to get COVID-19 vaccines. That's what it'll take to control the pandemic, allow the economy to recover and get our lives back to normal. And that's one reason the false claims about the vaccines on social media are so harmful, as NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond reports.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: University of Washington researcher Kolina Koltai first heard about the coronavirus back in January from anti-vaccination groups on Facebook.


KOLINA KOLTAI: They were posting stories from China like, hey, here's this mysterious illness, or here's something that seems to be spreading.

BOND: It's hard to remember now, but back then, few people in the U.S. were talking about the virus. But those opposed to vaccination were paying attention.


KOLTAI: There's been a long outstanding concern that an epidemic or, in this case, a pandemic is going to potentially cause another vaccine to be created to potentially be, like, forced onto everyone.

BOND: Koltai is well-versed in these false conspiracy theories about vaccines. She's studied the growing anti-vaccination movement on Facebook since 2015. Before now, these claims mainly circulated in specific groups dedicated to vaccines, alternative health and parenting. But this year, a global pandemic has created what she calls the perfect storm for misinformation to hit the mainstream.


KOLTAI: There's so much we don't know, so much uncertainty. And uncertainty makes us all so prone to misinformation to try to, like, quell that feeling.

BOND: Falsehoods have multiplied, from neighborhood chats to groups for pet owners, because so many people have questions about the COVID vaccines. They've also been propelled by groups opposed to lockdowns and mask-wearing and promoting QAnon, a fact-defying, pro-Trump conspiracy theory - like these discredited claims in a video titled "Plandemic" that went viral this summer.

KOLTAI: Essentially, that this was all part of a larger plan - to use the word plandemic - as a way to, like, sort of force vaccines. They're going to force things onto us to get to this, like, you know, new world order.

BOND: Baseless claims that the virus was planned and that vaccines will be used to track or control people were among the most mentioned pieces of misinformation this year, according to Zignal Labs, a media analytics company. And this matters to public health. A recent Gallup survey found more than a third of Americans, 37%, are not willing to get a COVID vaccine.


IMRAN AHMED: It's a really, really, really powerful parallel pandemic to the real pandemic.

BOND: Imran Ahmed is CEO of the nonprofit Center for Countering Digital Hate, which tracks online misinformation. His group commissioned its own poll this summer. It found people in the U.S. and U.K. who rely on social media for information about the pandemic were less likely to say they would get a COVID vaccine than those who get their news from traditional media. The group also found the 150 largest anti-vaccination accounts on social media gained 8 million followers since January. Ahmed says these twin pandemics amplify each other.


AHMED: One being biological, one being social, working in concert to really undermine our capacity to contain COVID.

BOND: The social networks are well aware of the problem. Facebook, YouTube and TikTok, which are all NPR financial supporters, say they're removing debunked claims about COVID vaccines. Twitter says it's still working on its policy. Recently, Facebook took down some of the biggest anti-vaccination groups and pages. Ahmed says even with these moves, public health officials face an uphill battle to persuade enough people to get vaccinated, while vaccine opponents have a lower bar.

AHMED: Their job is not to persuade people not to take a vaccine. It's to inject doubt. That's it. That's all you got to do for their side.

BOND: With the world racing to vaccinate, the stakes could not be higher.

Shannon Bond, NPR News.

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