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Misinformation Is the Biggest Threat to Ending This Pandemic

Myths about Covid-19 vaccines abound:

“The Covid-19 vaccines will make you infertile”

“Covid-19 vaccines don’t work”

“The government put a microchip in the Covid-19 vaccines”

“The Covid-19 vaccines create variants”

Each of those statements is false, but they are spreading widely, and studies show this type of misinformation can reduce someone’s desire to take the Covid-19 vaccine. In fact, the Covid-19 pandemic is laying bare a hard truth: facts alone are not sufficient to drive behavior change during a crisis—but misinformation that plays on emotion is. A recent study in the journal Nature found that even brief exposure to misinformation made people less likely to want a Covid-19 vaccine, the most effective tool to stopping this pandemic.

Misinformation has caused confusion and led people to decline Covid-19 vaccines, reject public health measures such as masking and physical distancing, and use unproven treatments, according to a new advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General. Misinformation can also be spread intentionally to serve a malicious purpose, including tricking people for financial gain or political advantage. Called “disinformation,” these organized campaigns can cause true harm in communities by causing distrust in the medical system.

Misinformation hampers the crucial efforts of healthcare professionals and scientists combating the outbreak, downplaying the disease, sowing vaccine fears, and polarizing preventive measures. This undermines widespread and targeted initiatives aimed at safeguarding the most vulnerable from Covid-19

An analysis of over 4.5 million social media posts found that false news stories were 70 percent more likely to be shared than true stories. This failure is causing significant harm and undermining our Covid-19 response and recovery efforts.

In the United States, communities of color are among the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. Research finds that even the wealthiest Black Americans experienced an increase in mortality more than 3.5 times larger than the increase experienced by the poorest White Americans. At the very same time, communities of color have been the intentional target of some disinformation campaigns, putting them at even greater risk. At The Rockefeller Foundation, through our Equity-First Vaccination Initiative working to increase access to vaccines in communities of color, we are hearing firsthand about some of these campaigns. For example:

  • In Oakland, California, Black communities are specifically targeted by weaponized disinformation spreading doubt about vaccines, creating concerns in communities where historic mistrust in the healthcare system is high.
  • In Houston, Texas, migrant communities are targeted on WhatsApp with “they will deport you” narratives that stoke fear among already disenfranchised people.
  • In Newark, New Jersey anti-vaxxers are targeting Christian, Spanish-speaking communities, asking them to choose between trusting God or trusting the Covid-19 vaccine—a false equivalence that nevertheless makes people question the vaccine.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Office of the Surgeon General launched a national effort to fight misinformation about Covid-19 vaccines, calling on all Americans—especially social media and tech companies—to do their part to stop the spread. The advisory maps out immediate, preliminary steps towards building a healthier information environment for everyone. Just as the research and funding communities came together to develop Covid-19 vaccines, we need to do the same to fight mis- and disinformation. With rigorous research, tailored and proven interventions, and hands-on and committed outreach, we can stop this 21st-century pandemic.

The Rockefeller Foundation is meeting this moment by committing $13.5 million over the next three years towards the effort. With this investment, we hope to further catalyze an emerging movement among the research community to measure the problem and identify viable solutions to counter it. In the coming months, we will be supporting organizations across Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the U.S. to conduct rigorous evaluations of programs focused on increasing Covid-19 vaccinations. We will also be supporting efforts to quantify the true cost of the information disorder in our societies.

This comprehensive effort will answer critical questions about the causal link between mis- and disinformation and health outcomes, its impact on our economies, what tools and interventions can be applied to fight it, and how these new approaches can be applied across cultures and geographies.

Our work is one important step, but we know there are others—and we realize that the philanthropic community has a special responsibility to contribute when society faces overwhelming need. We’ll be working to galvanize a broad response from like-minded organizations who share the desire to harness the power, voice, and resources of philanthropy to bring new solutions to this critical public health issue.

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