What to believe

What can you do to push back on misinformation? A lot, actually!

What to believe
Photo by Jorge Franganillo on Unsplash

Misinformation's back, baby

This is one of the regular newsletter columns written in my role as the Wisconsin Council of Churches Community Health Program Manager. You can see the original piece and other examples at the WCC website.

We have news from the Department of Not Great: Belief in misinformation has not improved since the introduction of COVID vaccines. In fact, it's gotten worse. And it's spreading to ideas about other vaccines.

Here's some of the highlights of a recent survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center:

  • Less than two-thirds of Americans think it's safer to get a COVID vaccine than to get the disease itself. That's down from 25% in 2021.
  • About one-quarter of respondents think Ivermectin is an effective treatment for COVID. That's way up from 10% in 2021.
  • 16% think vaccines are to blame for childhood autism. That's also up from 10% in 2021.

Overall, 71% of the people surveyed believed that approved vaccines are safe. That's particularly worrisome. Not surprisingly, people who don't think vaccines are safe don't get vaccinated.

What's happening to cause this? People appear to be tapping into alternative news ecosystems. Those networks share information opposing COVID vaccines. That has left their audiences more open to vaccine skepticism in general.

And of course there are always those willing to take advantage of the latest headlines. After the sudden death of NFL player Damar Hamlin, online posts quickly emerged to suggest it was the result of COVID vaccination. The same thing happened more recently after Matthew Perry's death.

What to do

What can you do to push back on misinformation? A lot, actually!

Consider the source
  • Is the person making this claim someone with relevant expertise? A celebrity who claims to have "done their own research" is obviously a red flag. But also be skeptical of political pundits and even some medical experts. A cardiologist isn't trained to evaluate vaccines, for example. That goes double for a podiatrist or a dentist. (And yes, I've seen all three cited before.)
  • Does this person have an incentive to share biased information? Consider if their perspective makes them a lot of money or helps them score political points.
  • Likewise, does the information source have an incentive to share misinformation? Avoid clickbait and promises to tell you "the real truth."
Consider the information
  • Look for the original source of the claim. Is it a peer-reviewed medical journal or an unsourced opinion piece? Be very skeptical of anecdotes.
  • If you're unsure about the validity of a claim, see if reputable sources confirm or add context to it. Ask your primary care provider or the local health department if they know anything about it. Or do a search to see if other news sources say the same thing. Look out for confirmation bias, however. Even the most trustworthy sources sometimes hear and repeat the same erroneous information.
  • Beware the VAERS. That's the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System before. It's open to anyone — scientists, medical providers, ordinary citizens — to report any problems they see or experience after vaccination. Investigators and researchers collect data from VAERS to spot potential downsides to vaccines. But it's very raw data, essentially a collection of anecdotes. It takes time and skill to establish and validate patterns from that primordial soup. Be skeptical of cherry-picked examples from VAERS or analyses by non-experts.
Consider your reaction
  • Be careful about your own emotions. As Heather Kelly says, "No matter how devastating, enlightening or enraging a TikTok, social media post or YouTube video is, you must wait before passing it on to your network." Don't post until you're sure about why you want to share, and whether it's justified.
  • Don't share misinformation, even to dispute it. If you must discuss a particular piece of mis-info, use the truth sandwich approach. State the truth, then warn your audience that they're going to hear something false. Explain the fallacy, then restate the facts so they stick in your audience's mind. But particularly on social media, repeating untruths amplifies and reinforces them. As much as possible, stick to positive messages. Emphasize your support for vaccination and reasons why others should get vaccinated.
Other things you can do
  • Share the graphic below with skeptics. It details the long process vaccines go through before they're approved for use. It's been shown to improve uptake for the RSV vaccine.
  • Learn how to report misinformation online, app by app!
  • Play the Go Viral! game to learn how misinformation influencers do their thing.
  • Work toward racial equity. Acknowledging social and systemic racism resets vaccination not as an individual choice, but as a tool for strengthening the community and overcoming barriers to health.

What to believe

Obviously, I won't change many minds on vaccination with this little newsletter. I can tell you that the "vaccines are safe and effective" position has far more credible evidence than the reverse. But I can't really make anyone believe anything about vaccines.

There is one final heuristic I can suggest for evaluating misinformation, however. You can and should believe God is love. And if that is the case, it follows that the positions we adopt should be out of love for one another.

So look at the information that comes your way and ask, "Is this meant to build up my community? Will it make them healthier overall? Or is it meant to reinforce our biases and keep us separated from one another?"

The answer to those questions might or might not tell you if a claim is true. Sometimes the truth is difficult and divisive, after all. But it will darn sure give you a read on how useful the claim is. And that is a great starting point for deciding what to do with it.