Factually: Officials confront COVID-19 vaccine resistance

Last month, FactCheck.org debunked a meme, still floating around on Facebook, that had a couple of made-up quotes attributed to the U.S. government’s top infectious disease official. It was called “The two faces of Dr. Anthony Fauci.”

The first quote falsely had him saying that “even though hundreds of doctors” have cured people with the drug hydroxychloroquine, it still needs to be studied some more. The other “face” of Fauci had him saying this: “As soon as a COVID-19 vaccine is manufactured, it must be delivered to healthcare professionals for immediate human injection. Proper studies can be done later.” Fauci never said that either.

The meme was a triple play on anti-vaccine emotions – anger that government officials are hypocrites, fear that they are trampling on individual liberties with the diktat that the vaccine “must be delivered…for human injection,” and distrust in the government to implement “proper” safety studies.

It’s this kind of emotional manipulation that scientists like Fauci are up against. The New York Times’ Kevin Roose recently called it the “vaccine information war.

The anti-vaxxers, Roose wrote, are “savvy media manipulators, effective communicators and experienced at exploiting the weaknesses of social media platforms.”

But if government health officials are outgunned in this conflict, at least they are now acknowledging it. They have indicated in recent days that they are forming their messaging for when a COVID-19 vaccine is ready, perhaps late this year or early in 2021.

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Fauci and other public health officials said the government would be putting “boots on the ground” in community engagement efforts to ensure that people understand the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine once it’s developed and shown to be safe.

There are similar issues in Canada, where a vaccine expert at the University of Toronto told the CBC that the public health community was facing a “major, major challenge” given how early the anti-vaxxers have geared up their campaigns. And in Africa, an early trial was marked by “a worrying level of resistance,” the Associated Press reported.

The stakes are high. If not enough people get the vaccine, populations will not reach the “herd immunity” needed to halt the spread of the virus.

Getting there will involve careful messaging. While Fauci’s been wildly popular among people who like his focus on facts and science (there are positive Fauci memes, too, and even Fauci cupcakes and candles) he thinks he might not be the best messenger for everybody.

“They may not like a government person in a suit like me telling them, even though I will tell them,” Fauci told CNN this week. “They really need to see people that they can relate to in the community — sports figures, community heroes, people that they look up to.”

That is especially true if the government person in a suit is also portrayed in a manipulative meme that falsely quotes him. People will get confused about which quotes are real and which aren’t. Which, of course, is the point.

– Susan Benkelman, API

. . . technology

  • Facebook this week said it had banned hundreds of accounts and groups associated with the far-right “boogaloo” movement whose followers have been linked to violence that disrupted mostly peaceful protests around the United States.
    • The Washington Post said the action “was a shift in [Facebook’s] strategy from just removing offending posts as they popped up.”
  • The Facebook move was one of several by tech platforms to intervene in political speech. Writing in The Verge, Casey Newton explained each action and ranked them in order of their potential impact.
    • Facebook saw a $60 billion drop in market value after advertisers began boycotting the platform, saying the company needs to do more to fight misinformation and hate speech.

. . . politics

  • Brazil’s Senate passed a controversial “fake news” bill intended to rein in disinformation in that country.

    • The legislation would require social media companies to keep a database of highly forwarded messages sent in the past three months, which could then be accessed by a court order.

    • Fact-checkers in the country say the proposal is overly broad and rife with potential abuse.

. . . science and health

  • Misinformation about COVID-19 across Africa is complicating efforts by the health care systems to get a handle on the virus, Quartz reported. More than 277,000 cases have now been recorded across the continent, where health systems as well as front-line medical workers are already stretched thin.
    • Yomi Kazeem reported broadcasts on WhatsApp about fake cures and remedies were reminiscent of the 2014 Ebola outbreak, when two people died and several were hospitalized in Nigeria after “cures” involving salt baths circulated on social media.

A hoax circulating in Spain falsely alleged that COVID-19 is mainly spread by contaminated flu vaccines. The claim further asserts the flu vaccine contains portions of other viruses such as HIV and herpes, and advocates the public should pass on the flu “naturally” saying the vaccine will only weaken one’s immune system.

Spanish fact-checking organization Agencia EFE pointed out the genetic differences between the flu and the novel coronavirus, and pointed to European Union quality controls to reaffirm the safety of vaccines. EFE also noted that most flu vaccines were administered in September and October, but Spain’s spike of COVID-19 patients occurred several months later.

What we liked: This fact-check helps readers distinguish between COVID-19 and seasonal flu. It also serves as a warning for fact-checkers and members of the public that this kind of misinformation could become more prevalent as we get closer to a COVID-19 vaccine.

– Harrison Mantas, IFCN

  1. Russia has launched a disinformation campaign against laboratories in former Soviet states that are now fighting the coronavirus pandemic in Central Asia and the Caucasus, Foreign Policy reported.

  2. A black cowboy has become a fixture at protests and rallies around Chicago. He’s also become a target of disinformation, The New York Times reported.

  3. For a piece called “Spies, Lies and Stonewalling,” CJR’s Jacob Silverman talked to reporters about what it’s like to cover Facebook.

  4. The United Nations launched an initiative called “Pause” to encourage the public to slow the spread of misinformation by taking a moment before sharing content online.

  5. The Global Fact 7 conference wrapped up its private track Tuesday, but you can watch all 24 panels from the public track here.

That’s it for this week! Feel free to send feedback and suggestions to factually@poynter.org. And if this newsletter was forwarded to you, or if you’re reading it on the web, you can subscribe here. Thanks for reading.

Susan and Harrison

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