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COVID-19 vaccine myths cripple US uptake as infections from delta variant surge

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Excuses range from simply false to absurd. The shots don’t work. They impair fertility. They will change your DNA. They attract you. They really do spread the virus.

Unvaccinated Americans have cited a myriad of myths to explain their reluctance to get vaccinated, baffling local health officials grappling with yet another spike in coronavirus cases caused by the more delta-transmitted variant. Inside the White House, concern is so acute that President Joe Biden publicly criticized Facebook Inc. for helping spread misinformation.

“Everything, from Bill Gates, inserting a microchip into it – I heard everything. This is ridiculous, ”said Tom Keller, chief executive officer of Ozarks Health Care in southern Missouri, a low-vaccination region that is the epicenter of the US Delta outbreak. …

“People are listening to social media instead of listening to their documents,” he said. “Someone with a million followers is suddenly an expert at not getting the vaccine.”

Just as the Biden administration found itself on the brink of eradicating COVID-19 in the United States, a shadow pandemic of disinformation threatens to prolong the crisis. The spread of a virus-like self through social media platforms, a miasma of uncertainty, anecdotes and outright lies has captured the imaginations of American hesitant to get vaccinated, slowing the US campaign to vaccinate the population.

Biden himself showed his frustration last week by accusing Facebook and other social media giants on Friday of “killing people” by allowing posts with false information about the virus and vaccines.

On Wednesday, during a town hall hosted by CNN, Biden said that “we are trying to use every possible means – public, private, government, non-government – to try to uncover the facts, what they really are. “

He reiterated his remarks about Facebook this week after the company rebuked him in a blog post, citing data showing that his platform helped boost vaccination rates and reduce fluctuations among users. Instead, Biden cited a report by the Digital Hate Response Center, a nonprofit with offices in London and Washington, which found that 12 leading anti-vaccination personalities and organizations are responsible for up to 70% of Facebook content that discourages COVID vaccinations. nineteen.

“Facebook doesn’t kill people,” Biden said Monday. “These 12 people are spreading misinformation, anyone who listens to it gets hurt, it kills people. This is bad information. “

He added that “instead of taking it personally,” Facebook should “do something about disinformation.”

The vaccination campaign has contributed to a sharp slowdown in the rate of vaccinations since April, forcing the government to switch to what Biden called “door-to-door” to obtain firearms – a remark that itself has been portrayed as a conspiracy by some Republican leaders. Although more than half of the US population as a whole received at least one dose of the vaccine, a recent Bloomberg analysis found that among the least vaccinated counties in the US, only about 28% are vaccinated.

There has also been a political split: Republicans are far more likely to be unvaccinated than Democrats, polls show. Conservative media and some Republican officials have in some cases escalated misinformation or tacitly supported vaccine hesitancy by refusing to vaccinate themselves – or admitting to have done so.

Several Fox News anchors, including Sean Hannity, have called on their viewers this week to get vaccinated after criticism that the network had previously broadcast snippets downplaying the COVID-19 threat and questioning the need and safety of vaccinations.

Last week, US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a disinformation advisory. “Today we live in a world where disinformation poses an imminent and insidious threat to the health of our nation,” he said at a White House briefing.

According to the CCDH, around 150 of the top online anti-vaccination accounts attracted over 10 million followers on social media from December 2019 to December 2020, especially on Instagram and YouTube. Murthy accused the major social networks of actually developing their products to spread disinformation.

“Modern tech companies have allowed disinformation to poison our information environment with little to no accountability to their users,” he said. “They allowed people to deliberately spread misinformation, what we call misinformation, in order to get extraordinary coverage. They design product features such as buttons that reward us for sharing emotionally charged content rather than accurate content, and their algorithms tend to give us more of what we push, pulling us deeper and deeper into the source of misinformation. “

Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klein, recently called the CEO of Facebook Inc. Mark Zuckerberg to complain about the role of the social media platform in spreading misinformation about vaccines.

“Platforms have to do better, I think especially Facebook has to get better,” Klein told the New York Times in a podcast released July 1. “There is no doubt that a lot of misinformation about vaccines is coming from Facebook posts. and here it is a matter of life or death. “

Facebook said in a blog post on Saturday that more than 2 billion people worldwide have viewed “authoritative information” about COVID-19 and vaccines using its platform, and that 3.3 million Americans have used its vaccine search tool to find a vaccination site. and make an appointment. …

“When we see misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines, we take action against it,” Guy Rosen, vice president of integrity for the company, wrote in a post.

He wrote that the company has removed 18 million “copies” of disinformation about COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic, and flagged and reduced visibility of 167 million messages that have been “denied by our network of fact-checking partners.”

Social media posts can reinforce pre-existing doubts about vaccines. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey of unvaccinated adults published on June 30 found that 53% considered the vaccines too new and 53% worried about side effects.

About 43% said they just didn’t want it, 38% didn’t trust the government, 38% didn’t think they needed the vaccine, and 26% said they didn’t trust vaccines in general.

A smaller percentage of people said they did not know where to get the vaccine, or worried about not having a job or having to pay for the vaccine. It’s free for all US residents.

Republicans, villagers, young people and people of color are among the most cautious about Covid vaccinations, but demographics are not easy to explain the fluctuations or how to deal with them. Two-thirds of Democrats live in homes where everyone is vaccinated, according to a Kaiser poll, while 39% of Republicans live in homes that have not been vaccinated.

“Not everyone will hesitate for the same reasons,” said Timothy Callaghan, a rural health student at Texas A&M University. “The most important thing public health can do right now is to first understand people’s beliefs. And then explain what is true and what is not. The last thing you need to do is completely ignore someone’s beliefs. “

For many indecisive people, Callaghan said, the problem boils down to a fundamental lack of trust. This means that government public health messages are often less powerful than advice from a trusted friend, relative, or community leader.

Another Kaiser study found that people initially skeptical of the vaccine received vaccinations after seeing friends and family vaccinated without side effects, after pressure from friends or family, or after talking to their doctors.

But in communities where fewer people are vaccinated overall, there is less support or peer pressure.

“These people had the opportunity to be vaccinated for several months. At this point, vaccine refusal is deeply rooted in their beliefs, ”Callaghan said. According to him, changing the mindset of people at this stage is “building trust and building relationships.”

In these places, social media is disrupting the vaccination campaign. Major social media platforms have been slow to take action against unfounded claims of Covid-19 and vaccines, and when intervention does occur, it is often half-measures.

Instagram, for example, banned famed vaccine opponent Robert Kennedy Jr. in February, but he remains on Facebook, Instagram’s parent company, and his organization is on Instagram, Facebook and YouTube.

In Springfield, the city’s health department Facebook account denied ridiculous allegations, including that the vaccine itself spreads the virus.

“To be honest, I don’t know how to find all the sources because we don’t see them,” said Katie Townes, deputy director of health at Springfield Green County, Missouri. “I don’t even know how to get to some of these things.”

To complicate matters further, disinformation spread by vaccine opponents has come to overlap with disinformation by anti-government conspiracy theorists and far-right figures, including the QAnon movement.

Misinformation about the impact of coronavirus vaccinations on children has resonated with QAnon supporters, who claim that prominent Democrats are engaging in intricate conspiracies to traffick children.

Some of the misinformation spread by opponents of the vaccine is downright bizarre, such as the claim that shots attract patients, which is especially popular on TikTok. In the Midwest and South, regions of deep doubt, questions often arise about whether vaccines affect fertility (no evidence) or alter human DNA (no).

Politicians can help, especially if more senior Republicans support vaccinations, work with local leaders to promote vaccinations and stop spreading misinformation themselves, said Matt Motta, a political science professor at Oklahoma State University at Stillwater.

But in many cases the absence of politicians can be even more beneficial. In Springfield, for example, Towns said one of the city’s most successful vaccination clinics was set up at a fire station — Americans still trust firefighters.

In Alabama, one of the country’s least vaccinated states, state health officer Scott Harris said pharmacists, doctors and religious leaders are among the best advocates for vaccinations.

“These people who are fighting or opposing vaccinations,” he said, “they just have such a low level of trust in everyone, including politicians.”

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