COVID-19 vaccine and disinformation: How health care providers can leverage social media to combat this trend

If you’ve scrolled through social media lately, you’ve undoubtedly encountered a swirl of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. In one video, a young woman gets a COVID-19 vaccine, and within a few hours, begins climbing the walls of her room as if possessed by a demon. Another one shows a young man shaking uncontrollably in the middle of the night, with vomit all over his face, after receiving the vaccine earlier in the day. As health care providers, we are bombarded constantly on social media with conspiracy theories about the COVID-19 vaccines, frustrated at the dearth of misinformation but motivated to take action because when looking at the vaccine data, demonic overtake and severe vomiting are not complications of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines approved for emergency use authorization.

Only a few months ago, it was considered wildly aspirational that a highly effective and safe vaccine against COVID-19 would be available before the end of the year (2020). Now that we have vaccines with 94-95% efficacy, we all should be taking them. However, public polls show high vaccine hesitancy rates among Americans, with only about 58% saying they would take one. Even among health care workers, a recent UCLA health system survey showed that 67% intended to delay their own vaccination with some concerns linked to misinformation on the internet. We agree that being first in line for anything new can cause apprehension, but given the deadly risks accompanying COVID-19, and the encouraging safety data from trials, we as health care workers should be rolling up our sleeves to do our part to combat not only the virus but also the misinformation that’s gaining momentum while positively influencing the public’s uptake of the vaccine.

The role of health care workers in encouraging or discouraging vaccine uptake is well known. A 2015survey of French general practitioners showed that physicians had lower odds of recommending a vaccine to their patients when they either doubted the vaccine’s effectiveness or believed that adverse effects were likely. This should not be surprising as people are more likely to recommend therapies they believe in and vice versa. Furthermore, it rises to an even higher significance because we are dealing with a new vaccine based on a novel scientific approach for which health care workers may be wary.

So how can we help ourselves, and by extension the public, understand vaccine safety and efficacy? The first step is to meet vaccine skeptics at their most likely access point. About 40% of people turn to social media as a source of their health information. Unfortunately, some have taken advantage of these platforms to spread misinformation as embodied by the above stories. To counter this, we propose an all-out blitz of short, accurate, and engaging content on social media by reputable sources and experts, including us. But why short videos? We live in a culture of very short attention spans. A study in the NY Times examined over 40 million videos with over seven billion viewings and showed that 44.1% of viewers clicked away from each video after one minute, with 19% losing interest after only 10 seconds! It highlights the phenomenon of viewer abandonment and the importance of direct and to-the-point messaging.

Next, we should utilize the principle of social proof to increase acceptance of the vaccine. Social proof theorizes that in times of uncertainty, people look to others’ behaviors to determine the right course of action. The effect is more pronounced when one identifies the influencer as a peer. Even as former Presidents Obama, Bush, and Clinton all pledged to take the vaccine on camera, and prominent health care leaders are doing the same, the principle of social proof suggests that our actions might be more convincing to members of our communities since we are more relatable than those in authority. As health care workers, we should join in the social media campaign, posting pictures and videos of ourselves taking the vaccines while creating short, direct messages aimed at debunking misinformation. This solidarity within the health care workforce could give us a unified opportunity to vanquish this virus by promoting vaccine uptake. It may also be very effective for racial and ethnic minority groups who have expressed even more vaccine hesitancy than others.

Another endeavor that plays on the benefits of social proof is the use of social media challenges as an outreach tool. Many might remember the “ALS Ice bucket challenge” of 2014. This led to more than 2.4 million videos circulated on Facebook, and over 220 million dollars raised, becoming an international phenomenon. During the pandemic lockdown, various other challenges gained popularity on Instagram and Tiktok, such as the Renegade challenge, which had people posting videos of themselves performing a choreographed dance routine, and the “don’t rush challenge,” which had professionals change into different outfits while virtually passing makeup brushes to each other. Health care workers could partner with content creators and musicians to choreograph videos like this with associated “challenges” to social media friends. By harnessing our desire for creativity and connection with others, videos like this could “go viral” very quickly while increasing awareness and acceptance of the COVID vaccine’s importance.

As members of the health care workforce, we must recognize the crucial role we play in influencing vaccine uptake. With the death toll over 300,000 in the U.S., the stakes could not be higher as the final death count will hinge on how quickly we can translate the vaccine’s efficacy into real-world effectiveness through optimizing uptake. We should aim to increase vaccine uptake at “warp speed.” Now is the time to harness the power of social media to combat disinformation.  Now is the time to use creative content to put an end to this pandemic. This is our lane. Will you join us in this fight?

Emmanuel Ohuabunwa is an emergency physician. Victor Agbafe is a medical student. Onyema Ogbuagu is an infectious disease physician.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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