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Health officials, social media scramble to fight vaccine misinformation

Public health authorities and social media companies are scrambling to battle coronavirus misinformation as they try to ensure that enough Americans get vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Health experts say at least 70 percent of the country needs to be vaccinated in order to achieve herd immunity and completely crush the outbreak that has killed more than 300,000 Americans.

National polls show an increasing number of Americans are willing to get a coronavirus vaccine, but that some populations, particularly Black and Latino people, are reticent. 

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Federal officials are rolling a vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech that is 95 percent effective, and the Food and Drug Administration on Friday cleared a second vaccine from Moderna that is almost equally effective at preventing cases of COVID-19.

“It would be terrible, with a tool as good as that, if people don't utilize that tool,” Anthony FauciAnthony FauciFauci was concerned people would do 'dangerous and foolish' things after Trump suggested injecting disinfectant GOP lawmaker wants to ban feds from funding collection of COVID-19 vaccine info Overnight Health Care: Biden says anyone who wants vaccine may be able to get it by spring | Moderna says vaccine effective on variants, but tests booster shot | California lifts regional stay-at-home order MORE, the country's top infectious diseases doctor, said in a Dec. 15 NPR interview.

The reasons for skepticism vary. Some people have cited what they called the Trump administration's politicization of a vaccine, despite denials from officials that politics played a role in the speedy development. 

Others are grounded in American medicine’s problematic past and present with patients from minority groups. 

“You have to acknowledge the historical wrongs that have happened. And then you need to expressively address those concerns,” said Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association. 

Authorities need to dispel the legitimate concerns that make people hesitant, while also stopping waves of deliberate misinformation from anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists.

Benjamin said it is easier to address the concerns of people who are hesitant, rather than those who believe and often deliberately peddle conspiracy theories.

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“You know, what do you do with the person who does not believe that this disease exists? Some of those folks will be faced with reality when they or a family member or someone they know, gets really sick. And, some of them you'll never convince,” Benjamin said.

Anti-vaccine communities have long been some of the most active and engaged online, congregating in public and private spaces to share falsehoods about the risk of vaccinations.

Those groups have been supercharged by the coronavirus pandemic, which has both eroded trust in traditional institutions and left millions with few options for social interaction beyond the internet.

Paul Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, told The Hill that the biggest source of coronavirus vaccine disinformation is “the morphing of long-standing anti-vaccine activists.”

“There's a considerable foundation out there that existed before anyone had heard about COVID-19,” he explained. “Those groups have been totally activated by the current crisis.”

The same distrust in institutions that has boosted anti-vaccination communities has also funneled thousands toward conspiracy theories.

QAnon, whose followers believe President TrumpDonald TrumpSchumer: Impeachment trial will be quick, doesn't need a lot of witnesses Nurse to be tapped by Biden as acting surgeon general: report Schumer calls for Biden to declare climate emergency MORE is working to expose a cabal of shadowy elites in the media and government running child-sex trafficking rings, has been a clear beneficiary of that slide to conspiratorial thinking.

The growth of QAnon could complicate reaching herd immunity, as its supporters ramp up lies about COVID-19 vaccines, like that they are administered with a microchip to control and track citizens, or that Bill Gates is responsible for the coronavirus.

“These conspiracy theories are wrong, but I am very concerned that they could break into the mainstream. And if we have people who are not going to get vaccinated, that makes it much harder for us to get herd immunity through vaccination, and therefore, to end the epidemic,” said Leana Wen, a public health professor at George Washington University who previously served as Baltimore's health commissioner.

“So it really is a matter of life and death here,” Wen said.

Public health officials will also have to contend with a more mainstream source of vaccine misinformation: conservative media and supporters of President Trump.

A recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 42 percent of Republicans would probably not, or definitely would not, be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Vice President Pence and his wife Karen were vaccinated live on television Friday, in an effort to bridge the partisan divide. But Trump was noticeably absent.

Wen said it would be helpful if Trump were to speak up and get the shot.

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“There are many millions of Americans today for whom the most credible messenger is President Trump. And so having President Trump speak, to correct misinformation is really important,” Wen said. 

Trump has repeatedly sown doubt about the seriousness of the pandemic and has mocked the use of masks to limit its spread.

According to a report from Cornell University, 38 percent of all articles containing misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic published between Jan. 1 and May 26 featured Trump and some kind of misleading claim which he has shared.

Lawmakers in Congress who back Trump have also said things that could discourage the use of vaccines.

Rep. Ken BuckKenneth (Ken) Robert BuckProgressive groups warn against appointing tech insiders to key antitrust roles House Republican condemns anti-Trump celebrities during impeachment hearing Pompeo, Cruz and other Trump allies condemn Twitter's ban on president MORE (R-Colo.) said he would not take the vaccine because he is “more concerned about the side effects of the vaccine than of the disease” in a Fox Business interview Friday morning. His office later clarified that Buck believes those at risk should “get the vaccine immediately.”

Right-wing media has also been a driver of coronavirus misinformation. One analysis found that between Feb. 1 and March 23, right-leaning outlets posted nearly 4,000 stories with faulty info about the disease, while mainstream outlets had just 1,500. 

Social media platforms, one of the key vectors for health misinformation, have sought to stamp out misinformation.

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Facebook earlier this month said it will begin removing posts with false claims about the “safety, efficacy, ingredients or side effects” of coronavirus vaccines.

Twitter earlier this week said it would start labeling and requiring users to take down posts that “advance harmful, false or misleading narratives” about the COVID-19 vaccinations. YouTube in October announced a similar policy.

Beyond just restricting existing coronavirus misinformation, Barrett said that platforms should work to boost information about vaccines from trustworthy sources. Many of them have been doing so already.

Still, health experts said tech companies can only go so far.

“If somebody has doubts about vaccines, I'm not sure that what's going to change their mind is an ad on Facebook,” said Wen. 

What matters is outreach.

“I think what might help to change their minds is seeing their family members getting the vaccine, having their pastor talk about it and seeing their fellow parishioners get the vaccine,” Wen said.