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Social media misinformation not helping fight against COVID

by Olivia Murray

The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic has escalated with the completion and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) approval of not one but two vaccines for the virus. 

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was the first to meet the statutory criteria for the issuance of an emergency use authorization, and the Moderna vaccine’s approval followed shortly thereafter. 

In the days that followed the approval of the Pfizer vaccine, social media exploded. Images of frontline health care workers receiving their vaccines emerged on Facebook, while live videos of United States Vice President Mike Pence and West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice  receiving theirs circulated on Twitter.

While social media has been helpful in spreading the news of the vaccines’ approvals and documenting the rapid vaccine transportation and dispersion efforts made by Pfizer and Moderna, it has also been a place for individuals to voice their excitement and concerns. 

Not so helpfully, it has also  allowed the spread of misinformation regarding not only the COVID-19 pandemic itself but the  vaccines as well.

In a story released by WVU Today, Elizabeth L. Cohen, associate professor in West Virginia University’s Department of Communication Studies, addressed the ongoing issue of social media acting as a catalyst for the dissemination of misinformation. 

“Social network sites like Facebook and YouTube will continue to facilitate the spread of both information and misinformation about vaccines,” Cohen said. “Unfortunately, misinformation may garner more attention on these sites because it’s usually more interesting, emotionally charged and very often it’s easier to understand than some of the more credible information about the vaccines, often characterized by stuffy medical jargon.” 

Cohen  addressed the effect of the misinformation that plagues social media: The rise of conspiracy theories. Conspiracy theories surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines were  online before either vaccine’s approval.

Notions of microchips in vaccines, worries of the vaccine altering human DNA and concern  the vaccine would give the receiver the virus can be consistently found in comments beneath any news related to the COVID-19 vaccines. 

“A lot of the misinformation circulating about the COVID vaccine is tied to conspiracy theories. Ironically, research suggests that the reason that many people subscribe to conspiracy theories, which sow fear and mistrust in different institutions, is because it makes them feel more comfortable. Conspiracy theories are more appealing to people feeling anxious and uncertain about the world around them,” Cohen said.

Cohen added that these theories provide concerned individuals with reasons behind occurrences, and though they may not be supported with any evidence, the answers they give make individuals feel more confident and knowledgeable. 

Despite the sometimes overwhelming negativity  on social media, Cohen said  not all   information about vaccines currently circulating on social media is bad. 

Cohen said images and videos of health care workers, political figures and celebrities — as well as family and friends in the near future — receiving  vaccines may help nervous individuals feel safer about the vaccines. 

“My own research suggests that compared to the health experiences of ordinary people in the news, the health experiences of famous people are more likely to provide a benchmark that people will use to gauge what their own experience will be like. So, the more that high-profile people are seen having [a] pleasant, safe and effective vaccination experience, the more the public should follow suit,” Cohen said. 

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