This story is part of Doubting the Dose, a series that examines anti-vaccine sentiment and the role of misinformation in supercharging it. Read more here.
One year into the pandemic, our ability as a country to get back to normal depends on how quickly millions of Americans can get vaccinated. Scientists estimate we need between 70% and 85% of the U.S. population to be protected from the virus before we reach herd immunity, where enough people are immune to the disease to prevent it from spreading.
With demand for the COVID-19 vaccines vastly outstretching supply, much of the focus has rightly been on the vaccination rollout. But the next big hurdle to herd immunity isn’t manufacturing and efficient distribution—it’s hesitancy.
Because the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson-Janssen vaccines were developed in less than a year, many people don’t feel certain that they’re safe—even though the scientific process wasn’t rushed, and rigorous testing has proven that the approved vaccines are both safe and effective. Others fear side effects, which clinical trials have shown to be mild and actually can indicate that the shot is doing its job to protect you against the virus. Nevertheless, many Americans have been influenced by the rise of vaccine misinformation, which has stoked a lack of trust in science and the government.
Recent data from a CMU-Facebook poll of 1.9 million Americans conducted from mid-January to the end of February shows that while the biggest reason people are concerned about the vaccine is fear over side effects, 29% of people who said they definitely would not get vaccinated cited a lack of trust in the vaccine, and 27% said they did not trust the government (respondents could check more than one reason).
In addition, a new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey found that people’s willingness to take the vaccine has a partisan bent. A whopping 47% of people who supported former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election—and 49% of Republican men—said they did not want to be vaccinated.
It’s difficult to divorce these hesitancy rates from the rapid spread of vaccine misinformation, which ranges from the subtle messaging of health influencers who cast doubt on the science of vaccines, all the way to the straight-up conspiracy theorists who believe that the vaccines include microchips (this is false and has been widely debunked).
After brewing in niche Facebook groups for many years, anti-vax content finally reached the mainstream during the coronavirus pandemic. Boosted by a general rise in conspiratorial thinking and a strain of resistance to public health practices, like masking and social distancing, vaccine misinformation like the pseudo-doc Plandemic went viral in the early months of the pandemic and continued to spread despite tech giants’ attempts to crack down.
Even though Facebook has banned a wide range of misinformation related to COVID-19 and vaccines, and Twitter recently said it would ban users who continued to share pandemic-related lies, conspiracies can still be found across social networks, where they can be spurred by recommendation systems that reward extreme and inflammatory viewpoints.
The anti-vaccine drumbeat online may have had some impact on how people feel about the COVID-19 vaccines. In fact, a summer 2020 YouGov poll commissioned by the Center for Countering Digital Hate shows a link between social media usage and vaccine hesitancy: The survey found that only 56% of U.S. residents who use social media to receive news about the coronavirus will definitely or probably get a vaccine, while 66% of U.S. residents who receive news from traditional media say the same.
Still, despite the efforts of misinformation superspreaders to promote outlandish theories and stoke fear over a life-saving shot, overall hesitancy rates have been on the decline for months. The CMU-Facebook poll shows that the number of people willing to be vaccinated increased by 5% in the past six weeks, though the overall number of hesitant and unvaccinated adults remains at 23%. The Biden administration is increasingly involved in closing this gap to ensure we reach herd immunity as a country as quickly as possible, and reports say that government officials are even coordinating with the tech giants to continue their efforts to halt the online spread of dangerous misinformation.
To unpack the multilayered reasons for vaccine hesitancy and analyze the role of social media in supercharging it, we’re launching Doubting the Dose, a package of stories that examines the complex roots and manifestations of anti-vaccine sentiment. Our stories debunk some of the biggest myths about the COVID-19 vaccines, explore the role of social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram in spreading misinformation, and report on the reluctance of some frontline and healthcare workers to receive the vaccine.
We explore how hesitancy is impacting communities of color—though it can sometimes be used as an excuse to not deal with systemic issues and health disparities—and look at the efforts to combat the different flavors of vaccine misinformation overseas. A timeline of important moments in the history of anti-vaccine sentiment puts our current moment in context, showing that this is a centuries-old problem that has reared its head in the last 15 years, as celebrities jumped on board and social networks provided a new way to infect people with doubt.
Reaching herd immunity is our best chance of bringing life closer to normal again, where we can see friends and family, do our jobs, and travel without the pressing fear of the virus. But doing so will entail continuing to convince a diminishing minority of the scientific safety of the COVID-19 vaccines.
- What the science says about 7 common COVID-19 vaccine myths
- Inside the push to convince hesitant essential workers to get vaccinated
- 17 moments in the long, turbulent history of vaccine skepticism
- The pernicious staying power of COVID-19’s first viral disinformation campaign
- What’s working in the global fight against COVID-19 vaccine misinformation