IS THAT A FACT?
Special: Is misinformation to blame for vaccine hesitancy?
Season 1 Episode 11
About The Episode
In this special episode of Is that a fact? we explore why some people remain hesitant to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines, despite growing evidence that inoculation is the key to getting our lives and the economy back on track. We wanted to find out just how much misinformation might be to blame for that reluctance or if genuine concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines might be giving people pause.
To answer this question and more, we spoke with Dr. Erica Pan, California state epidemiologist, and Brandy Zadrozny, a senior reporter for NBC News who covers misinformation, extremism and the internet.
Dr. Pan has served as interim health officer and director of the Division of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention at the Alameda County Public Health Department since 2011 and was director of public health emergency preparedness and response at the San Francisco Department of Public Health in 2011. She was also director of the Bioterrorism and Infectious Disease Emergencies Unit at the San Francisco Department of Public Health from 2004 to 2010 and was a medical epidemiologist trainee there from 2003 to 2004. Dr. Pan earned her medical degree and a masters in public health from the Tufts University School of Medicine.
Before joining NBC News, Zadrozny was a senior researcher and writer at The Daily Beast for five years, where she broke stories about Russia’s Internet Research Agency — which spreads pro-Russian propaganda on the internet and seeks to influence events in other countries — as well as those about President Donald Trump and some of his associates. Prior to her career in journalism, Zadrozny was a teacher and librarian.
For more information on combating COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, visit newslit.org/coronavirus, where you’ll find links to reliable sources of information, articles addressing the full spectrum of vaccine hesitancy, sites that debunk many of the myths surrounding vaccines and the virus, and more.
Darragh Worland: In this special episode of Is that fact?, we wanted to explore why some people remain hesitant to get one of the COVID-19 vaccines, despite growing evidence that inoculation is the key to returning to something resembling normalcy. I’m your host, Worland. We were curious about how much misinformation is to blame for that hesitancy, or if legitimate concerns about the safety and effectiveness of the vaccines are giving people pause. So, we turned to Dr. Pan, who is the deputy director of the California Department of Public Health, Center for Infectious Diseases, and Brandy Zadrozny, a senior reporter for NBC News who covers misinformation, extremism, and the internet.
But before we dive in, I should mention I’m fully vaccinated. And you’ll hear in the episode how I feel about vaccinating my twin toddlers when they are eligible. The decisions we make about our health and that of our families are deeply personal. They’re influenced not just by the facts, but by our own values and beliefs. Being skeptical and wanting to explore the available facts before making such important decisions are at the heart of news literacy. So, stay curious. We hope this episode will help you do just that. We’ll start by exploring the science of the vaccines with Dr. Pan.
We’re joined today by Dr. Erica Pan, California State epidemiologist and deputy director of the Center for Infectious Diseases at the California Department of Public Health. Dr. Pan, thank you for joining us to talk about the impact of misinformation on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy.
Dr. Pan: Thank you so much for having me.
Worland: How much of a barrier would you say vaccine hesitancy is to our achieving herd immunity, at least here in the United States?
Dr. Pan: I do think vaccine confidence, which is the other way we’ve been framing it, is an important element for a middle ground group of people for whom, and we’ve seen this with other vaccine acceptance as well, getting sort of trusted messengers, trusted communities, on board is often all that’s needed. I think there’s another sub-segment that is really kind of more firm, and what we sometimes call the rejectors. I do think with the vaccine, for the sort of people in that middle ground, we have a lot of opportunity to get most of those people to get vaccinated, and I do think we can actually get to community immunity. And I think there’s a lot of sort of variation in how we’re all defining that as well.
Worland: So, should we be using the term vaccine confidence instead of vaccine hesitancy? It sounds like sort of a more positive way of phrasing the same thing.
Dr. Pan: That is something that we are starting to do, and hearing that might help reframe a bit as well. Yes.
Worland: How much do you think misinformation, and even disinformation, might be to blame for low COVID-19 vaccine confidence?
Dr. Pan: I do think it’s definitely a component. False information can spread very quickly, especially in our kind of modern day with social media and the internet. And often, of course, really important conversations are happening with peers and friends and family members. And here at the Department of Health in California, we have a dedicated Trust and Safety team that’s been monitoring for mis- and disinformation online, so that we can better tailor and target all of our outreach efforts and also flag posts for tech companies to note if we see sort of false information on there.
Worland: Oh, that’s really interesting. So, given that you’ve been tracking some of this misinformation and disinformation, what would you say are some of the most common misconceptions about the COVID-19 vaccines?
Dr. Pan: A couple I would mention and that I hear most commonly, and that we’re seeing are a lot of, are concerns that the process was rushed and that things were developed too quickly, especially with the kind of billing of Operation Warp Speed. So, I think that’s one. The other one that’s been interesting to me is if there’s any impact on fertility. And that seems to be a very common myth out there. And I personally am not entirely sure why, although that’s been a common myth with other vaccines as well, but there’s absolutely no data to suggest that is true.
Worland: When the pandemic started, I think what we were hearing was that the record for bringing a vaccine to market was something like four years, which I’m sure struck fear in everybody’s heart. It did in mine. And so the idea that we could bring a vaccine to market in record time, cutting out three years, basically, of research time, is understandably, very nerve-wracking for people, right? So, can you talk a little bit about how quickly it came to market and how rigorous the studies were?
Dr. Pan: I think it’s really important for people to know that all those previous vaccine trials really helped inform this rapid development. And I think this was the highest priority for multiple manufacturers and the federal government and other governments. People were really dropping everything else and prioritizing, just like they were for other parts of the pandemic. And that’s really part of this sort of speed as well, and I think also a lot more collaboration that sometimes typically doesn’t happen if people are competing for a market. I think the other really important point to emphasize is that, again, no actual steps were skipped. It’s just that it was a highest priority. And I think it was in the midst of really high levels of disease transmission. So, the manufacturers were able to gather and analyze that safety and efficacy data and accumulate enough cases very quickly because there were high levels of disease exposure. So, the usual numbers of participants and cases were gathered. They made sure they gathered enough to get statistical significance. And then all of the steps, also, as far as approval, were, again, prioritized at sort of the FDA level. in California, we worked with other states to have an additional group that had some crossover with some of these federal advisory groups, but a scientific safety review work group, to also reassure us that they felt like they looked at all the steps that were followed. All of the steps were followed. Nothing was skipped. It’s just that, again, I think it was using prior technology, prior research, building upon that, to very quickly bring something to market.
Worland: Okay. So, for people who are on social media, and I definitely have people in my feed who are saying, “I’m not going to be a lab rat in this grand experiment for this untested vaccine,” what would you say to them?
Dr. Pan: We have administered in the United States over 260 million vaccine doses to over 150 million individuals. And I’d say that the science and the technology are informing vaccine development from decades of research with this rapid development of these safe and effective vaccines today. We have never been able to accumulate this much safety and effectiveness data so quickly. So, of course, the numbers I just said are after those clinical trials, but seeing over 150 million people, I don’t think we’ve ever had that much data within a few months to look at. And I also just want to emphasize that getting vaccinated will get us all past this pandemic and back to normal. I was actually just noting this week that even countries like Taiwan and Singapore who had really tight public health control previously are seeing cases again and having to impose restrictions because they don’t have enough people vaccinated, because they emphasize the other parts. But now, even with those tight controls and both of those happen to be more like islands, they’re seeing cases again. And so they’re really needing to motivate people to get vaccinated because this is really our long-term protection, right? To get vaccinated and protect ourselves so we can get back to normal.
Worland: Okay. Well, I want to talk a little bit about adverse events, which are part of any clinical trial and a risk with any kind of vaccine. So, we’ve obviously all heard about the small number of women, and it is a very small number of women in the grand scheme of things, who experienced blood clots after receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. I’ve also seen stories of women’s menstrual cycles being disrupted by the vaccine. And there’s something called COVID arm, where you develop a rash at the injection site, which could be maybe the result of an allergic reaction. So, how much of a risk is there of adverse events resulting from the vaccine, or do you think these reports are really just overblown?
Dr. Pan: I think what we did see with the pause for the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is our monitoring system working and seeing this really rare outcome be noted and paid attention to, and then gathering more evidence to really look at the benefits versus the risks. I think there are common side effects that we see with other vaccines, other injections. So, some of that is really, we often talk about, it’s your immune system working when you get that vaccine. And after I got the Johnson & Johnson, definitely that night, I was really tired. I had a low-grade temperature, and I was better within a couple of days and felt like my immune system was working. But then there are many people who get vaccinated and don’t have any side effects.
But those are all common things. And, again, I think what’s important to know is that we have this Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, that any person who gets vaccinated and certainly any clinical provider that administers the vaccine can report to. And all of those reports are investigated, and we’re not seeing any other signals so far. And, again, over 150 million people have been vaccinated. So, I think, I feel really reassured that our system is working. We have a good system in place. This happens a lot with other anecdotes, happens with flu vaccine, too. People seem to think they’re getting the flu from the vaccine, but actually if you look at the placebo versus vaccinated people in any given winter season, there’s no difference between the people that have some of those same side effects with placebo and vaccine. And another question you’re asking, and I think one thing that is really important and true, is that a lot of it is around what your personal experience is, and the people around you and their personal experience. So, I think continuing to get good information to people, to have these conversations is really important.
Worland: Can you explain to our listeners what the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, or I think it’s pronounced VAERS, is and how that plays into vaccine misinformation?
Dr. Pan: Essentially it’s a national reporting system, and any person who’s been vaccinated can report to it and also any clinician can report to it. And it’s a way that information is gathered. Every report is looked at and investigated. Anybody can report and then gets investigated. And then it’s a much longer investigation to determine if it is thought to be causal. So, just because it’s reported in the system, it doesn’t mean a vaccine has caused the events that are reported. But it is how we gather that information. Then, certainly, that is how we learned, again, about these rare and unusual blood clots. And I think it’s a very effective system here in the United States.
Worland: Some people who are reluctant to get the vaccine say it’s because they’ve already had COVID. They have antibodies, and they don’t need it. Is that a correct assessment?
Dr. Pan: No, it’s not. And I’m glad you asked, and it is actually another common misunderstanding. So, we’ve seen in the lab, if you look at people’s blood, who’ve been infected versus gotten vaccinated, there’s a much stronger immune response from the people who’ve been vaccinated. And, especially, I think to protect against other variants that are evolving, it’s really a much stronger immune response, again, for people who’ve been vaccinated. So, even if people have documented an infection in the past, we really strongly encourage you to get vaccinated, to protect you from ongoing disease transmission. And, while rare, we have seen people get reinfected as well.
Worland: Over the course of your career as a medical professional, would you say you’ve seen a growing distrust of the healthcare or medical community and of science more generally?
Dr. Pan: I certainly think there are trends and ebbs and flows. And I think, in many ways, there’s a lot more empowerment of health consumers to be able to look into information and advocate for themselves. And, so, I think that is a really positive thing, but then I think it is hard. From talking and having personal conversations and hearing where people are getting information and not necessarily knowing where those reliable resources are, I can relate to that, when it’s happened in a field that’s not my own and I’m trying to get certain information in another area that’s not my own. I think there have been a lot of other factors as well, a lot of other social factors, that have influenced this. I do think increasing controversies happened over the role of government, people’s beliefs about how much control, for example, public health should have, or government should have, over people’s individual decisions, and then how that weighs into overall public kind of harm. And I think it’s important to just point out that the structural racism that we’ve seen in different aspects, including our healthcare system, have absolutely impacted levels of distrust in certain communities. And I think we need to address those issues, as far as access to care, good information, and equal care, along with really getting good and accurate information out.
Worland: Absolutely. So, full disclosure. I am vaccinated. I got the Moderna vaccine. I got both doses. I didn’t really have much of a reaction, but I also have twin three-and-a-half-year-old girls. And I imagine that in the not too distant future, they will become eligible for one of the vaccines that’s on the market, once it’s been fully tested and vetted. But I have to admit that I’m a little hesitant. They’ve gotten all their other vaccines on schedule. But I think, like any parent, it would be hard for me to forgive myself if they were among the very small percentage of people that do have some kind of adverse event as a result of the vaccine. So, I’d say I’m probably about 90% of the way there. So, what would you tell me, and other people like me, to get me that extra 10%?
Dr. Pan: I think those are all very important and valid concerns. I’m a parent as well. All my kids are a little older. And, actually, I’m very excited to say they’re in this current age group that has just about to be authorized to get vaccinated. What’s important to think about, especially knowing that your kids have gotten other vaccines, and for other parents that have trusted other vaccines, is that all of the research that has gone into these vaccines has been really built upon prior vaccinations. There is no reason to believe this won’t get authorized until there’s at least a minimum amount of data. But, again, with 150 million adults that have already been vaccinated with these three options, there’s no sort of physiological reason, there’s no history that I’m aware of, of vaccines that were shown to be safe in adults that were then somehow had more adverse effects in children. So, there’s not a physiological reason. And I think the other thing to keep in mind is, we are turning this, thankfully, into a vaccine-preventable disease. And we’ve been reminding people this week that while, in general, the worst outcomes were certainly in the most elderly, we have had 21 pediatric deaths here in California. So, again, if it’s preventable, then I think the benefits far outweigh the risks. I can say that both as a parent, as a pediatric infectious disease specialist, I have a lot of trust and faith in vaccines. We’ve really gotten rid of a lot of other important diseases because of vaccines. And I think this is the next one. I think we’ve never accumulated this much safety data in such a short amount of time. The last I’ve heard is we might have some data by fall for the under 11-year-olds. I think the five-to-11-year-olds might be the next group. And then the next one after that might be where your kids are. But those are all things I would say to reassure someone. And if my kids were three-and-a-half, as soon as it was available, if I saw that clinical data and that, these other entities that are really the experts, the CDC Advisory Committee, if they all sort of agree and endorsed, then I would absolutely sign my kid up as soon as I could.
Worland: So, more generally, for people other than me and people in my position, what’s the best advice you can offer anyone who might have low confidence in the vaccine, that might push them over the edge?
Dr. Pan: The more people we can get vaccinated, the more we can get beyond this pandemic. And, at some point, we hope to get to just sporadic disease. We were able to eliminate certain diseases, like measles, in the United States. And then we saw more disease again when we saw an unvaccinated population. So, this is very much the same. And I think what’s even more concerning about this particular virus is that people can be infected and infect others without any symptoms. You’ve seen the different studies. And, so, we need people to get vaccinated, to get back to our normal lives. We also don’t know enough yet about the long-term impacts of any infection. Even people who have had infections with no symptoms, we’re starting to see now concerning data … and we don’t know yet what predicts who’s going to have these long-term impacts, sort of the fog, with the long COVID. And there are heart impacts. There are brain impacts that we’re just still learning about and understanding. So, it’s a vaccine-preventable disease now. And I think the more we can get people vaccinated, the more we can keep it out of our communities. We need everyone to get vaccinated so we can decrease transmission and not allow more of these variants to evolve, because this virus needs to keep transmitting and replicating or to have more variants that can escape the vaccine. But if we get people vaccinated, then the virus won’t have that opportunity.
Worland: Achieving herd immunity, essentially, is one way to keep this from becoming what some people would call a super virus?
Dr. Pan: Correct. The way the virus is going to be able to learn how to escape vaccines and continue to survive if … It will keep looking for our vulnerable people, right? So, the ones who aren’t protected. And it’s very clear, what we’re seeing nationally, is that more and more young people are becoming infected. Because we’ve vaccinated more of our older population, and this virus will continue to do that. So, it will continue to find our vulnerable. And, so, people really should protect themselves and the people around them.
Worland: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your time today, Dr. Pan, really valuable, important information.
Dr. Pan: Great. Well, thank you for helping us get good information out there and address the issues.
Worland: Now that we’ve explored the research and data behind the vaccines, we’ll talk to Zadrozny about the cluttered landscape of misinformation that has been obscuring them. We’re joined by Brandy Zadrozny, a senior reporter for NBC News covering misinformation, extremism, and the internet. Brandy, thank you for joining us to talk about the impact of misinformation on COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy today.
Brandy Zadrozny: Thanks for having me.
Worland: Would you say there’s a difference between anti-vaxxers and people who just don’t want the COVID vaccines?
Zadrozny: Yes. So, I think of anti-vaxxers as this really small community of people who are against, specifically, childhood vaccinations, and have been part of this community for a long time, like two decades. And childhood vaccines have always been really, really popular, even though this small, small, small group has been very, very vocal. In the last 20 years, anti-vaxxers have really made some progress, persuading new parents and maybe woke grandparents, to be afraid of vaccines. But, again, it’s still just a really small community. At the same time, recruits were really limited to those moms and grandparents, but then COVID happened and that brought this whole new audience. Literally, everyone in the world was now looking for information about vaccines. At the same time, a lot of people had reasonable questions. So, when I think about people who don’t want to get the vaccine or don’t want to get the vaccine yet, I think it’s really important to not lump them in with this dedicated movement, which is a movement of misinformation around making people not want to get vaccines and not believe in vaccines generally. Most of the people who are questioning vaccines now, in fact, had their own children vaccinated. So, I think that distinction is really important.
Worland: Is it worth debunking this misinformation? In some cases, it goes as far as being like a conspiracy theory about vaccines. Is it worth taking on some of the biggest claims that they make about the vaccine and why you shouldn’t get it?
Zadrozny: I think fact-checking is important. There is research out there that says that Twitter and Facebook have both released things recently that say when you have labels on things, people are less likely to click on it. It’s front-loading. It’s giving people the correct information first. And then if you want to see it anyway, fine, you can click through. But you already have that in your brain that this is false for this reason. So, I think that’s really helpful. In terms of what I do, I work in a sort of different arm of journalism, where I’m not just fact- checking, but I’m trying to understand the networks and the machinations and the way that these campaigns work. So, I want to understand the method that people are using to get misinformation out and the technologies that help support that spread and the people that are harmed in the meantime. But to your question, is it worth it? The boom and belief in this misinformation has really made me question a lot of what we’re doing. And I think that that’s always sort of a helpful place to be, reassessing what kind of journalism are we doing. Is it moving the needle towards truth? Is it further entrenching people? I don’t know the answer to that.
Worland: I guess what I mean is, specifically, point by point, is it worth saying, “Okay, people are saying that we’re vaccinating Americans in order to put a microchip in them. This is false because … ” Is it worth going point by point like that? Or is it just better to sort of expose people to these systems of misinformation the way you’re talking about?
Zadrozny: I think, why not both? If people believe that there’s a microchip embedded in this vaccine, then I think it’s pretty helpful to say and have someone explain why microchips can’t fit through the head of a needle or something, or a syringe. I think that’s great. I think that, hopefully, will persuade a lot of people. Or what I think goes hand-in-hand with that is showing people the larger picture and saying, “You’re seeing this insane conspiracy theory because you’re on a website who makes money serving it up to you and is in bad faith. And here’s the background of this company.” And I think that both of those sort of go hand-in-hand, when you can see why people are spreading misinformation. I think about the example of America’s Frontline Doctors, remember, those group of sort of wild doctors. They stood in front of the Supreme Court steps. They had like, I don’t know, three people in the audience. And they said, “Hydroxychloroquine will cure you. There is no problem with COVID.” And there’s literally three people out there for their … I’m using my air quotes, “press conference.” But it went everywhere. And why did it go everywhere? Because they had invited a website to come document that. And then that right-wing website put it on Facebook, and millions of people saw it. Now, who was behind America’s Frontline Doctors? A Tea Party group. Understanding that is so much easier for me. I’m a narrative story kind of person, and I think a lot of humans are. It’s easier to understand why you shouldn’t believe it. Not only because it’s not true, but there are people trying to manipulate you for political gain or money or whatever it is.
Worland: Absolutely. I want to talk about Republican hesitation, and particularly Republican men and even evangelicals’ hesitation to get the vaccine. Are they misinformed because they’re living in a echo chamber? How do you explain that?
Zadrozny: What happened in March of 2020 sets the stage for what we are seeing now, which is wide mistrust in vaccines from ultra-conservatives, from evangelicals. What we see as a polarization in how people viewed COVID right from the start. And a lot of that was because government officials had to respond. And, so, we were already in such a polarized environment and when governors started locking down states, we had people come out who weren’t anti-vaxxers. They hadn’t thought about vaccinations at all, but they came out against the lockdowns. Who also came out against the lockdowns were anti-vaccination activists. And, so, in the spring we saw a heavy cross [section] of militia groups, libertarian groups, and extremists and then Second Amendment, militia-type people. And then the Patriot Party, Trump supporters, and then also the anti-vaccination movement. All those people sort of melded together. And they generally aligned under the banner of anti-government, “Don’t tell me what to do. It’s my freedom.” That’s when we saw the anti-mask narrative, anti-lockdown narrative, and now it’s morphed into the anti-vaccine narrative.
Worland: It’s like COVID denial, moving into vaccine resistance. Much has been made also of hesitancy within the Black community to get vaccinated. Since the original report that’s been sort of rolled back a bit, and maybe it was a bit overstated.
Do you think that concerns in the Black community about the vaccine have been addressed or maybe they’ve gotten access to credible information from trusted messengers? And do you think that reluctance is fading and that maybe that community is … a smaller cohort now of the vaccine hesitancy group?
Zadrozny: The prevailing thought at the beginning was that because of maltreatment and a history of maltreatment from the medical profession and the government research against people of color, that group would have the major hesitancy. And we did see some of that. But I think it’s really hard, and it’s really misinformed of us, to lump that big badge on anyone. Why are conservatives against the vaccine? Well, there’s lots of reasons. And, so, why are BIPOC people … hesitant to get the vaccine? Why do they feel this way? Well, there’s a lot of different reasons. It’s not so easy to just ascribe a single narrative for all hesitancy. But I do think that there were a lot of issues of access. That is something that we have seen sort of managed as the vaccines became more available. Also, community members in Black, Latino, and indigenous communities have been very good at getting the vaccine to their communities, and going where people are. So, that’s a lesson to all of us.
Worland: I want to talk more about like the spread of misinformation online. We spoke to Dr. Pan at California’s Center for Infectious Diseases. And she told us that they have a dedicated team that monitors misinformation online and then even reports it to the social media companies, with the idea that they will remove it or flag it. Have you heard about this? And do you have any kind of sense of how well social media platforms have performed in removing vaccine misinformation, based on this guidance?
Zadrozny: The social media platforms do this thing every couple of months, where they say, “We have removed 30,000 posts,” or “We have removed a million COVID vaccine posts.” That doesn’t mean anything to me. I feel like that’s just throwing numbers at somebody. So you say, “Wow, that’s a lot.” And then go about your day. How they’re doing it is a complicated question because is social media free from misinformation? Absolutely not. The problem with these companies is that they’re very large, and they make decisions based on negative press or political pressure or whatever it is. So, let’s just look at Facebook because they’re the biggest, and I think the most dangerous, in terms of misinformation that we’re seeing. Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, stringently believes that his company should not be the arbiter of truth. He thinks that more information is better. Because of that edict, he has long guided the company into not removing, or not really doing anything, for a long, long time, with anti-vaccination totally. They do these inch-by-inch, baby-step policy decisions. So they ban ads, right? And then they’ll reduce the reach of vaccine misinformation. But then they’ll remove specific misinformation, but only if it’s been specifically debunked by the WHO. But now it’s at this place where, because we see how vaccine misinformation spreads, it’s actually not usually through these top-down, big posts. It’s actually spreading through stories and firsthand accounts of people who claim their children, or now themselves, were injured by these vaccines. That’s always the way that this misinformation has worked. You can look at the documentary, Vaxxed, that has red-pilled so many people against vaccines. And all that is, is a compilation of stories, of tragic stories, of women and parents, who think that their children were injured by vaccines. If a woman is posting, “My child has autism now because of this vaccine,” how can I fact-check that? I can’t fact-check a person’s experience. And this is what moves on Facebook and social. I think it is really something that just last week Facebook said that they were going to start reducing, or removing, stories if they seem directly aimed at discouraging vaccines, like shocking stories about vaccine injuries. I don’t know. It’s super tough. I would not want to be in charge of this at any of the social media companies. It’s a hard one.
Worland: In January, Twitter launched something called Birdwatch, a forum to monitor misinformation, not necessarily about the vaccines, but more general [misinformation]. Have you seen any kind of evidence that it’s helped reduce misinformation there?
Zadrozny: You have to commend Twitter in a way, because when they hear complaints, they do listen, and they are very … creative, in terms of trying new things. A lot of them aren’t going to work. And Birdwatch was this really great idea where they thought, “Okay, what works well on the internet?” And Wikipedia works really well. In a lot of ways, Reddit works really well because it’s crowdsourced information, but with a very high-minded sort of structure, which makes it so that best information rises to the top, based on votes. And you have moderators or people that are tasked with being in charge of this information that clearly care about the subject, and who are known to be good stewards of this role. Birdwatch, in its current iteration, might get better. But it’s just turned into this hyper-partisan, political, [forum] and it’s just not working yet, unfortunately.
Worland: I feel like we’ve kind of touched on this throughout the interview, but how did getting vaccinated just become so politicized?
Zadrozny: I think everything is politicized right now. Dr. Seuss and the storms in Texas and this gas stuff. I mean, just everything is so political. And, so, of course, this would be too, unfortunately. You would hope that this would sort of rise above it because we have such a long history of faith in vaccinations. We just know that they work, and they work well. You might think that they would escape this moment, but it seems that they haven’t. If we look to the spring in 202, we just really saw those anti-lockdown protests became about liberty and freedom and anti-government. And that is just basically repackaged, libertarian, and ultra-conservative messaging. So, it really stuck.
Worland: Right. And it’s part of the country’s history, I guess. I want to turn to a sort of a more personal question for you. There’s obviously so much misinformation about COVID-19, the vaccines. How do you choose which to report on? And honestly, does it get draining sometimes, and how do you keep going?
Zadrozny: It is draining, only because it feels like I’ve been writing the same story for years and years. The stakes got a lot higher in 2020, but they’re the same players. These are the same stories. The story of, “This person is lying to you, and their lives are going viral crazy because social media works in a way that sends you bad content like this.” And now it’s on Fox News, and my dad’s hearing it. That’s the frustrating thing, I think, is just sort of shouting into the wind.
In terms of what we cover we adhere to the idea of that tipping point. And we just think about it a lot, whether the work that we do is going to be doing more harm than good. And, so, we try to be thoughtful of that and not amplify bad messages. And, I mean, I’m fine. I’m vaccinated. I’m doubled-vaxxed. It’s my job. I feel that it’s important. I hope that it’s important, but it’s okay. I guess my thought is that I’m still sort of hopeful that despite this misinformation, that there are a lot of people out there who generally have good, fair questions about vaccines. And once they can see, with their own eyes, people going outside and churches reconvening, and all these things sort of happening with people who are vaccinated and feel great and feel fine and they’ll be off their computers a little more, I hope that the vaccination rate will increase because people will have seen it.
Worland: Right. The proof is in the pudding. I mean, we’re already seeing the positivity rates going down, where there are high rates of vaccination. So some of that evidence is already starting to show. And then I think we’re also, in some places, anyway, starting to actually experience that opening up.
Zadrozny: I think it’s important, too, not to take agency away from people. We talk a lot about misinformation. I think it’s an incredibly important field. It is my whole field. But I think it’s also important to remember that people are smart. People have real, live communities that they talk to and that can influence them. People have personal doctors that they trust. I was just on this anti-vaccine group the other day. And this woman was talking about her experience. And she said that she wasn’t going to get vaccinated. She was totally against the vaccination. And then her son said to her, “Don’t you want to see your grandchild? If you’re going to take the risk with COVID, why not take the risk with the vaccine?” And she said, “Okay.” So she just got vaccinated. And she’s like, “And I’m fine. And nothing happened to me.” And, so, these little stories of real-life interactions, I think will become more common.
Worland: I think the other thing is people are being really driven by their values. And then, with that example you just gave, the son is presenting another value, right? Like, “Okay, you value your health. You value your life and your safety.” But then he’s sort of presenting an alternate value for her to put above that fear that she might have. But, anyway, thank you so much, Brandy. This has been really helpful. It’s great to talk to you and to get such a clear idea on the landscape of misinformation and how it’s causing vaccine hesitancy.
Zadrozny: Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Worland: Thanks to Dr. Pan, and NBC reporter, Brandy Zadrozny, for joining us for this special episode. For more information on combating COVID-19 vaccine misinformation, visit newslit.org/coronavirus. There, you’ll find links to reliable sources of information on the virus and vaccines, articles addressing the full spectrum of vaccine hesitancy, sites that debunk many of the myths surrounding the shots and the virus, and much more.
Is that a fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan education non-profit, helping educators, students, and the general public become news-literate, so they can be active consumers of news and information and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. I’m your host, Worland. Our producer is Mike Webb, and the editor of the episode is Timothy Kramer. Our music is by Eryn Bush. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to newslit.org. Thanks for listening.