Combatting COVID-19 Vaccine Misinformation

Date: April 01, 2021
Time to read: 4 minutes.

Addressing and mitigating misinformation is a critical component for building vaccine trust and confidence. This blog post highlights promising practices for correcting vaccine misinformation, promoting vaccine credibility, and encouraging people to become vaccinated.

How should we debunk vaccine misinformation? Common approaches to refuting misinformation sometimes include “mythbuster” hand-outs or materials prominently highlighting the misinformation itself. However, communications and behavioral science experts warn that this approach can backfire.[1]  When debunking misinformation, experts recommend not restating the myth when countering it with facts, as this can inadvertently reinforce it in people’s minds. Lori Dorfman, Director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, recommends a “truth sandwich”:

  1. State the fact.
  2. Reference the misinformation.  
  3. End with the truth again.

When referencing the misinformation in Step 2, Lauren A. Smith, MD, MPH, Chief Health Equity and Strategy Officer, CDC Foundation, suggests prefacing it with a warning, such as “some false rumors have stated…” and avoiding repetition of the exact key words used in the misinformation.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recommends implementing “misinformation surveillance” efforts to identify prominent sources of misinformation, the tactics being used, and the groups most at risk of being exposed to and influenced by the rumors. According to the NIH, “understanding the emerging themes, values, logic, or concerns underlying the false claims or conspiracy theories can inform the development of effective counter-messages.” Many health plans are closely monitoring the messages circulating in their communities and proactively soliciting member feedback through their member advisory councils, community townhall sessions, surveys, and other listening activities. Plans are using these approaches to identify specific misinformation and concerns expressed by different segments of their member population. They can then tailor their messaging and outreach to address particular concerns. In addition, several plans are engaging with the broader community through public service announcements, local television and radio interviews, and by posting fliers in public places to educate the public with facts about COVID-19 vaccination.

When is the right time to combat vaccine misinformation? There is a science to the timing of debunking misinformation. Consider whether the mainstream media is covering it and if it is spreading from one platform to another. Claire Wardle, PhD, Executive Director, First Draft News, indicates in a recent report that although not every rumor should be immediately debunked, when a rumor begins gaining widespread traction that could cause harm or undermine critical public health efforts, intervention is then necessary. When possible, it can also be helpful to preemptively warn individuals that they might hear misinformation, as this practice can make people more psychologically resistant to rumors.

How can we promote vaccine credibility and encourage individuals to get a vaccine? The NIH suggests that increasing exposure to multiple sources of factual counterarguments, developed based on best practices, can encourage individuals to change their beliefs about COVID-19 vaccination. Additional expert tips for communicating about vaccines include:

  1. Be credible. In your communications, do not “go beyond the data,” and transparently acknowledge data limitations.
  2. Communicate frequently and to a wide audience. Do not assume that people who are well-informed about health topics cannot be influenced by misinformation, and do not presume that debunking misinformation one time will be enough. According to Chou, Burgdorf, Gaysynsky, and Hunter (COVID-19 Vaccination Communication), “communication effects are often incremental and require persistence and consistency.”
  3. Acknowledge the impact of inequality and approach conversations with empathy. It is critical to communicate with empathy in order to build relationships and to effectively and directly confront environments of misinformation and histories of mistrust. Acknowledge historical inequalities and events that may reduce trust, and promote equity by putting more emphasis on listening and co-creating next steps for vaccination roll-out with the community and less emphasis on persuading.
  4. Harness social influences. The role of health professionals is key in providing strong recommendations that normalize vaccination. Include endorsements by trusted leaders, including respected scientists.
  5. Leverage behavioral insights to increase individual motivation. Emphasize the normalcy of vaccination when communicating about vaccines, and build trust in vaccines over time. Make sure to also give people basic information so that they know what to expect when receiving a vaccine.

We would like to thank panelists from the CDC’s National Forum on COVID-19 Vaccine: Lori Dorfman, Director, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Saad Omer, PhD, MPH, MBBS, Director, Yale Institute for Global Health, Lauren A. Smith, MD, MPH, Chief Health Equity and Strategy Officer, CDC Foundation, and Claire Wardle, PhD, Executive Director, First Draft News, whose content contributed to this post.

If you would like to share your own promising practices for use on this blog, please complete our brief survey here or email us at RIC@Lewin.com.

[1] Several such experts shared best practices for myth debunking at the CDC National Forum on COVID-19 Vaccine during a session entitled Combatting Vaccine Information.

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