Photo Credit: Caryma Sa’d
The endless spread of COVID-19 misinformation and anti-vaxxer theories
Alessia Baptista, Managing Editor
Throughout the pandemic, there have been several conspiracies sneaking their way into the media about COVID-19 and the development of the vaccine. These theories are often circulated by anti-vaxxers: people who don’t believe in the effectiveness of the vaccine, or, more generally, people who think COVID-19 is a hoax altogether.
Conspiracies about the Coronavirus and the vaccine began to circle in the vaccine’s development phase. Common theories among the anti-vaxx community include the claim that vaccines cause autism and other brain disorders, simultaneously arguing that the vaccine affects fertility. While the vaccine does have a few side effects, none of these conspiracies are supported by scientific evidence.
More recently, an error in a recent Canadian study about the side effects of COVID-19 vaccines has spread among the anti-vaxx community. The Ottawa Heart Institute released a preprint study that had not yet been peer reviewed, looking at the rate of myocarditis and pericarditis cases after receiving a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in Ottawa from June 1 to July 31. The Institute falsely claimed that 1 in 1,000 were at risk of heart inflammation upon receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Dr. Peter Liu, scientific director of the Ottawa Heart Institute and co-author of this study, stated that “the number was not complete” upon publishing. An apology was later released after the mistake had been caught.
Evidently, preprint publications can play a large role in distributing information. In an article by Tom Sheldon, Sr. Press Manager at the Science Media Centre in London, he expresses his concerns surrounding the controversy of circulating preprint information. Sheldon rightly argues that improper reviews can be overdramatized in the media, while better, more accurate information, might be overlooked.
In the age of digital media, many individuals consume news via social media, online news sites, or television. The media is always quick to get their hands on information, as are anti-vaxxers, so the spread of misinformation is a threat to society, especially when circulating information that is not supported by scientific theories. As a result, when preprints are released, journalists are quick to write about them, despite the uncertain validity of information presented. If a story goes viral, it can be misleading to millions of people, ultimately contributing to the theories of the anti-vaxx community and allowing them to create conspiracies more efficiently.
The spread of misinformation, specifically on social media platforms, is a dangerous territory, and has led to several social media platforms, including Instagram and YouTube, to implement strategies to prevent the spread of conspiracies surrounding the pandemic. For example, if the word “COVID-19” or “vaccine” is mentioned in an Instagram post, Instagram filters these terms by default and provides a link that will lead users to trustworthy information regarding the vaccine.
In an effort to diffuse rumours surrounding the vaccine, YouTube has recently decided to ban anti-vaccine content, not just for COVID-19 but for vaccines of all types. Matt Halprin, the Vice President of YouTube, has banned vaccine misinformation altogether. While YouTube strives to provide a platform that supports freedom of speech, their decision to ban anti-vaccine content prevents creators from profiting off of false information and aims to promote accurate information surrounding COVID-19 in the news.
Despite the efforts of the anti-vaxx community to convince the world into believing that the efforts of science are unreliable, it’s proven that the vaccine has a significant impact on preventing the spread of a global pandemic. The media plays a large role in entertaining the conspiracies created by anti-vaxxers, which is why it’s crucial that information, especially in the news and surrounding medical studies, is as accurate as possible.