Countering misinformation

Misinformation about vaccines is posing problems for vaccine uptake. In a nationally representative survey, 25 per cent of the population accepted at least one element of misinformation, 15 per cent accepted some misinformation and 10 per cent consistently accepted misinformation.

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Misinformation about vaccines is posing problems for vaccine uptake. In a nationally representative survey, 25 per cent of the population accepted at least one element of misinformation, 15 per cent accepted some misinformation and 10 per cent consistently accepted misinformation (Freeman et al. 2021). This survey tested a range of statements ranging from the governments’ response such as ‘the lockdown is intended to increase surveillance’ through to ‘the virus is a hoax’. Individuals that are more susceptible to misinformation are also less likely to comply with health guidance and vaccination (Roozenbeck et al. 2021).

There is no silver bullet to counter misinformation. Instead there are a range of solutions which have been trialled in different contexts. The key point is to try to understand who you are speaking with and what the prevalent attitude is amongst your audience. 

Learnings from past studies

Susceptibility to COVID-19 misinformation

Below are some socio-demographic and attitudinal characteristics of groups that are more likely to endorse misinformation about COVID-19. Since misinformation does undermine intentions to be vaccinated, there is an overlap with vaccine hesitant groups.

Attitudes, beliefs and behaviours (Roozenbeck et al. 2021; Freeman et al. 2021):

  • Distrust towards scientists, authority, institutions and experts
  • Less compliant with government COVID-19 health guidance (e.g., social distancing)
  • Use social media as a main source of information about COVID-19

Socio-demographic characteristics (Roozenbeck et al. 2021; Freeman et al. 2021; Jan‐Willem van Prooijen et al., 2018)

  • Younger generations
  • Being politically right-wing
  • Socially and economically deprived groups
Common misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines

Below are common types of misinformation about COVID-19 that have been circulating:

  • The vaccine contains pork
  • The vaccine will cause infertility
  • Vaccine can not be trusted because trials were rushed COVID-19 vaccines will alter our DNA
  • The vaccine gives you COVID-19
Strategies to counter misinformation

The COVID-19 Wiki provides several strategies on how to counter misinformation. There are videos about the COVID-19 vaccine, facts on countering or debunking vaccine misinformation myths and other useful resources. They also provide suggested structures for webinars and communications which can be adopted to address misinformation.

There are two main strategies used to counter misinformation. The first one is a pre-emptive one, which entails protecting people from future misinformation. The second one is to correct misinformation once it is already circulating.

It is important to note that countering misinformation is not always effective at changing people’s beliefs. In some cases it can even backfire (Nyhan & Reifler,  2014).

Protect against misinformation:

Help people identify misinformation when they are exposed to it. In order to do so,  first 1) forewarn people about the potential threat of being manipulated by misinformation, and 2)  raising awareness on the common manipulation techniques used in fake news,  such as:  fear appeals,  conspiratorial reasoning, use of fake experts and cherry picking information. (van der Linden et al., 2020; Bavel et al., 2020; Lewandowsky et al., 2021)

Correcting misinformation: Misinformation often emerges when there is uncertainty and information gaps. Correct misinformation by providing an alternative alternative explanation  that fills the knowledge gap,  emphasise facts,  use simple and brief communications, repeat the correct information when possible without repeating the misinformation, and frame the correction information in a way that endorses your target audience’s values  (Lewandowskyet al. 2012).

Council examples

Councils have been using the guidance and materials available and applying it to their local context.

  1. The misinformation strategy adopted by the London borough of Havering is to emphasise the correct information (e.g.  that vaccines are safe) by stating facts about the vaccine. They consciously decided not to repeat misinformation in their communications, which could further promote it.
  2. Knowsley council identified a lot of misinformation in their area. They decided to address this issue through countering misinformation with positive news that highlights the good things that their community have achieved during the pandemic.
Sources

Coronavirus conspiracy beliefs, mistrust, and compliance with government guidelines in England (Freeman et al)

Susceptibility to misinformation about COVID-19 around the world (Roozenbeck et al)

Increased conspiracy beliefs among ethnic and Muslim minorities (Jan‐Willem van Prooijen et al., 2018)

The COVID-19 vaccine communication handbook and Wiki (Lewandowsky et al., 2021)

Using social and behavioural science to support COVID-19 pandemic response (Bavel et al, 2020)

Does correcting myths about the flu vaccine work? An experimental evaluation of the effects of corrective information (Nyhan and Reifler, 2014)

Video on COVID-19 vaccine

Myths about COVID-19 vaccination