by Lynette Owens

Although ‘fake news’ is not new to many, and something Trend Micro has been tracking for years, the threat of misinformation continues to be on the rise as we transition into 2021.  The good news is that many organizations are trying to do their part to help combat the threat of both misinformation and the spread of harmful content.  These efforts include Trend Micro creating its free Trend Micro Check tool to protect consumers, to Twitter creating “Birdwatch” a community effort to battle misinformation on its platform, to even Apple rolling out a new iMessage tool called “BlastDoor,” a new sandbox inside iMessage that receives and sanitizes all iMessage content before it’s shown to a user.

However, outside of politics, no other topic has quite been the focus of misinformation like the COVID-19 pandemic.  With the arrival of a vaccine for COVID-19 now rolling out across the globe, there is great hope that the pandemic will soon be behind us. But misconceptions and misinformation about it persist, especially online. What are the myths and the facts? Why do both exist online? And how do we distinguish one from the other?

In our 15th episode of Managing Family Life Online Webinar Series, “COVID-19: Finding Reliable Vaccine Info Online,” we tackled these questions and debunked the falsities with an emergency room physician and one of the nation’s leading experts Dr. Megan Ranney.

A few key takeaways from this discussion:

  • Misinformation on COVID-19 is Not New: Sadly, misinformation being shared about the Coronavirus is not a new problem being faced by the medical community. Since the earliest stages of the virus, misinformation existed and spread across the globe. Some of it was malicious, but some not. With so little known about the virus when the early cases were first discovered in the U.S. in February 2020, it was easy for those with the best intentions to share information that was out of date or no longer accurate as new data became available. These conversations persisted and, as they married with political theater, have become less about sharing credible sources and more about attempts to engage in negative or harmful attacks on one another.  In some cases, misinformation has led to threats of physical violence to medical personnel who are working hard to ensure the most credible, science-backed information about the virus and the vaccine are heard loud and clear.
  • The Three Largest Myths to Vaccinations: Despite outlandish claims of vaccines being used to ‘chip’ and track citizens, it is not sci-fi fantasies Dr. Ranney battles most of the time; the ones she faces are more understandable but very persistent or “sticky”. Three myths that come up the most include:
    1. Not Adequately Tested. There is a lingering fear that the process for developing the vaccine moved too quickly and without proper research. The facts? The vaccine was developed based on years of previous research, which was fortunate because it was this deep body of data that allowed it to be developed much faster than it would have otherwise.  Additionally, more than 170 countries and 40K+ patients participated in trials.
    2. “Scary” Side Effects. Any working vaccine is likely to give a recipient some low-level symptoms as part of its work to help the body fight the virus. So, a headache, loss of energy or low fever should be expected. This does not mean it is not working. With any form of medicine, there is always a fear of allergic reaction. This could happen, but again is not deadly and is completely treatable.  There is a 3 in 1 million persons chance of anaphylaxis with Moderna’s vaccine, and 10 in 1 million persons chance with Pfizer’s vaccine.
    3. History of Structural Racism. A very real, and very warranted fear comes from communities of color. Communities that have a history of being used as test groups for the larger medical community are now filled with doubts and lack of trust when it comes to larger scale efforts like this.

The Solution to Vaccination Misinformation is Not a One Stop Shop

According to Dr. Ranney, there is rarely a single solution to any large-scale problem.  Similar to other public health issues such as underage drinking or distracted driving accidents (driving under the influence, texting while driving, etc.), it takes a number of entities and behavioral changes to make a lasting impact.  Misinformation during this pandemic is like a public health issue, and no one entity can tackle it alone.  It can only be countered through a combination of personal changes in behavior, enforcements from platform providers and government regulation. There is no one person to blame or to shoulder this; everyone must do their part.

Educational Tools You Can Use

Dr. Ranney recommended a few resources to help fight misinformation about the virus, illness and vaccine, and be empowered with facts backed by scientific data.  As part of her work with the Center for Digital Health at Brown University, she and a team developed the MyCOVIDRisk App, which helps users estimate their risk of contracting COVID-19 when doing different kinds of activities.  Answer the questions honestly and it will share with you a quantifiable risk – based fully on science (not opinion) – to any activity you are considering from now and even after your vaccination.

Beyond great tools like this, we also recommend along with Dr. Ranney that you spend time to educate yourself on how exactly the vaccine works, what the actual side effects and risks are, and how effective it is – both in the short and long term.  While there is still a lot of information we don’t know and that scientists continue to collect and analyze, there are wonderful resources out there to shine a light on the answers we may be seeking.  The CDC, State Departments of Health, and your physician are some of those sources. Experts like Dr. Ranney who have been working tirelessly to treat COVID-19 patients, understand the virus, vaccines and treatments, and educate the public on the facts are worth a follow online, too.

To hear more on these topics, listen to the full conversation with Dr. Ranney.

For a list of tips to help stop the spread of misinformation on COVID-19 read our latest tip sheet. Additional helpful resources include:

NEXT UP:  The Managing Life Online Series will address “How Algorithms Perpetuate Inequality” as Lynette will speak with Dr. Safiya Noble, Associate Professor

Join us on February 10, 2021 as we dive into this discussion. For details please visit us at our Internet Safety Webinars.

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens

Lynette Owens is Vice President of Global Consumer Education & Marketing at Trend Micro and Founder of the Internet Safety for Kids and Families program. With 25+ years in the tech industry, Lynette speaks and blogs regularly on how to help kids become great digital citizens. She works with communities and 1:1 school districts across the U.S. and around the world to support online safety, digital and media literacy and digital citizenship education. She is a board member of the National Association for Media Literacy Education, an advisory committee member of the Digital Wellness Lab, and serves on the advisory boards of INHOPE and U.S. Safer Internet Day.

Follow her on Twitter @lynettetowens.